Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Michael Brandt & Derek Haas
based on a script by Halsted Welles
What can one hope to accomplish with the Western anymore? As a filmic genre, American and otherwise, it's been a mainstay in moviehouses for nearly ninety years—to say nothing of its literary tradition—ever since Edwin Porter fired a pistol at audiences in his silent classic, The Great Train Robbery. To speak its vernacular, is there much territory left to mine? You can subvert its conventions, sure, put a white hat on your clad-in-black villain, but even that route has by now been exhaustively explored. The best you could hope for, I think, is, going back to basics, to spin a good yarn while incorporating some of the revisionism that's preceded; within the first twenty seconds of 3:10 to Yuma, director James Mangold promises to do just that: he gives the audience a close-up of a ten-cent volume of Western adventure resting on a child's bedside, thus making his overall intention clear—this is going to be a Western, plain and simple. Enjoy.
Unfortunately he's not entirely successful, though that's not to say there isn't some measure of complexity to his telling; after all, this isn't some pre-Stagecoach John Wayne vehicle. Christian Bale stars as the hero, or the closest thing to it in the conventional sense, a rancher whose land is threatened to be usurped by railroad prospectors. (Mangold has a bad habit of stuffing in every generic trope imaginable; in addition to an encroaching railroad, being built by Chinese laborers, there's a stagecoach robbery and even a dangerous trip through Apache country! All that's missing is the drunk doctor.) From the get-go, Bale's established as a gelded failure when his barn is burned in an act of arson, intended to scare him into abandoning his land. "No one can think less of me," he says sorrowfully, later on. As if it weren't clear enough that he's hardly got a leg to stand on, he's actually missing a leg, an injury from his time served in the Union Army. When his wife scolds him for making a financial decision without consulting her—"we're supposed to make decisions together"—it at first seems like an anachronistic slip, but really it's a symbol of just how emasculated he is, a rancher in the Old West who needs to ask his wife's permission to spend his money as he sees fit. His son disdains him for it. I'll never walk in your path, he tells him.
Meanwhile notorious coach-robber Russell Crowe—"he's killed more people that the drought," Bale helpfully notes—has finally been apprehended, and Bale jumps at the opportunity to assist in his transport to a town called Contention, where Crowe will be put on the 3:10 train to the prison camp at Yuma. It's a bit of overcompensating from Bale, who risks his and his family's safety for two hundred silver pieces. But all of the film's characters are motivated by self-interest: Bale wants to save farm and face (he might be "courageous" but he has hardly a noble intention to back it up); the railroad men want their interests protected; miscellaneous bandits and bounty hunters fill out the margins. It's a West without a Code, without a sense of right or duty. In short, it's the birth of modern American capitalism, where right and wrong are mere slogans intended to obscure the real motivating forces—money and power.
Mangold has always had a fine eye for casting and a talent for coaxing memorable, often award-winning or award-nominated, performances from his actors, but he comes up short time and again when it comes to crafting memorable films. Here, Bale is fine as always, establishing himself as possibly the most reliable actor working today. Crowe is excellent as well, anchoring the film particularly in the quieter moments of dialogue. He imbues his quick-witted cad, who could've easily been (miserably) played without any nuance, with a pensive glare and a loping gravity that belies his claims to villainy, exposing a sensitivity possessed by no other character in the film. (When introduced, he's busy sketching a bird on the prairie trail.) It's the right choice on Crowe's part, whose character, though the Long John Silver to Bale's Dr. Livesey, is the only one who finally performs a selfless good deed; good and evil are not so simply distinct.
But while Mangold's film has a welcomely complex view of the world, it's too sprawling otherwise. Crowe's rapport with Bale, and their characters' developing friendship, is the crux of the film, but too often, especially in the film's first two thirds (the last third is very redeeming) it's overwhelmed and muddled by supporting characters, many of whom are played by actors not quite up to the task. (Dallas Roberts is particularly hammy as the railroad man; Ben Foster, thank God, gives a much more tempered turn than he did in Alpha Dog and is thus passable.) Ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma is too expansive, almost epic, that it loses sight of what ought to be its major focus. It takes far too long to get to the point, to get into Bale and Crowe's relationship and their similarities; some might defend it as characterization, but it seems to me like superfluous, scattershot filmmaking, the kind that wouldn't have passed muster in the old studio days. I'm all for revising the old ways and means, but palimpsestic films like 3:10 to Yuma ought not forget nor elide those things that used to work just fine, like lapidary storytelling.