Stark, intelligent, and supremely suspenseful, 3:10 TO YUMA is a masterpiece of psychological drama coupled with a darn fine action flick that uses the classic western as its idiom. And then turns it on its head. Though a remake of the film of the same name from 1957, there is a freshness and an edginess to it that belies its mid-century pedigree. It’s more than just the use of language too profane for that earlier time, more than the snippets of gore that splay across the screen with a vividness not allowed before. This version delves further into the dark side of human nature and comes back shaken rather than reassured with what it has found. This is a morality tale for uncertain times.
The story is basically the same. Rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale), on the verge of ruin thanks to the machinations of a land speculator, rides along with a posse to take outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) into the poetically named town of Contention, there to put him aboard the eponymous 3:10 prison train. The $200 he will earn will save the ranch, win back the respect of his family, and help make up for the foot he lost during the Civil War. The journey, though, is fraught with the sort of peril that is the stock and trade of westerns, yet carrying the action along is the philosophical battle of wits between Evans and Wade. Forget the renegade Apaches, forget the rogue Pinkerton detectives with their own scores to settle, forget the salt of the earth types who view justice through the lens of profit, whose conscience will prevail is the crux of this story and one that is more that enough to keep an audience on the edge of its seat.
Bale is laconic, somehow shrinking his large frame down into the semblance of someone actually badly beaten down by life. He is good, but this is Crowe’s film. He makes of this amoral character the sort of dashing adventurer that Evans’ older son worships with unrestrained adoration, to the rancher’s despair and acute jealousy. Quick witted and charming, even when spouting a stale line the audience has heard him use before or when quoting the bible, Wade is the essence of charisma. Self-assured to the point that even though he is the one in handcuffs for most of the film, there is no doubt who is in charge of any given moment through the sheer force of his personality. That and the sure and certain knowledge that his gang, led by the psychopathic Prince (Ben Foster in a career-making performance), are in hot pursuit to rescue him, adding to the level of suspense. Or maybe Wade is just plain nuts, making his amoral worldview just that much more disturbing for seeming so sensible in a hostile country peopled with hostile inhabitants. Using people, whether tossing them over a cliff for a slight, or feeding the distinct homoerotic attraction that is the undercurrent for the Prince’s obsessive, urgent determination to save Wade from the train, becomes not just the smart thing to do, it’s the only thing to do in order to thrive, not just survive as Evans has been doing. Even more disturbing is the way that Evans and Wade, both outcasts in their own ways, begin to bond, or do they? Is it a case of lulling the other into a false sense of security, telling a stranger things you wouldn’t tell your best friend, or is there a twisted longing for something that the other’s life holds? The brilliance of the acting, writing, and directing here is that those propositions are not mutually exclusive.
There is a further level at work here as well. The allure of that amorality, playing by one’s own rules and beating the system is brought into sharper focus with visual cues that are subtle, but effective. At any given moment, Ben Wade is the most attractive thing on screen, startling panoramas of dramatic western landscapes notwithstanding. He not only carries himself with a preternatrual self-confidence, in itself irresistible, he is, despite beatings and long rides on dusty trails, well-groomed in a way that would otherwise strain credulity. Lush auburn hair insouciantly tousled, cheeks tinged with a tan that is rugged but glowing, only the lightest coating of grit and grime, and clothes that seem worn, but not worn out. By comparison, his escort, particularly Bale, look like the end of a bad trail drive, stringy, greasy hair, clothes worse, and skin blotched, leathery, and undoubtedly carrying a few melanomas. It’s Darwinism with extreme prejudice and no room for human-defined ethics. The subconscious paradox playing into the seductive quality of evil sucks the audience in and adds a piquant and deliciously discomfiting subtext to the proceedings. Wade is wrong on every level, and yet it’s hard not to pull for him to come out on top.
3:10 TO YUMA has an emotional pull equal to the mythic quality of good and evil at play here, yet it doesn’t have a trace of sentimentality to gum up the works. These people are as rugged as the sere landscape on which they struggle. Told in hushed tones broken only by the blast of a shotgun, or the breaking of a heart, it nonetheless packs a wallop that will leave you breathless.