Tuesday, February 5, 2008

3:10 to Yuma -- a great modern Western

3:10 to Yuma is a terrific movie with two perfectly cast leading actors. Christian Bale (did you know he is English) plays Dan Evans, a morally upright and decent father with a gimpy leg, a wife and two sons. Russell Crowe plays Ben Wade, a thoroughly immoral and evil outlaw gang leader, who is charismatic yet sinister. It is a classic good vs evil tale . . . at least at the start. By the end, the lines have been blurred. Nothing is completely clear; black and white has become gray for both characters.

Evans is down on his luck, and about to evicted from his struggling farm to make way for the railroad. His teenaged son looks down on him for failing to be the wild west hero who takes what he wants and needs. His wife has lost trust in him. He needs redemption badly. And he is given the opportunity when a posse is needed to take the dangerous Wade to the aptly-named town of Contention, where he will ride the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. Despite the dangers to himself, Evans volunteers for this duty, seeing not only the dollars, which will save his land, but the dignity that will save his reputation in the eyes of his son. From here, the story takes a straightforward path, including indians, gunfights, and chases.

One scene early in the movie has Wade, a prisoner, eating at the Evans house in handcuffs. While Evans sits eating quietly, Wade makes conversation. And his conversation is psychologically scary, even as he appears erudite and seductively charming. Wade even appears to be type of hero to Evan's son, perhaps even to his wife.

As the movie plays out, and as the rest of the posse are killed or desert, we are left with Evans and Wade. By this time it is overly apparent that he is a cold-blooded killer, deceptive and dangerous. As the climax approaches, the movie plays a little like High Noon. We know a gunfight is coming. We know no one will stand with Evans. But we wonder why Evans continues to stand, since it is not really his fight. Is he doing it for justice? For respect? For money? Or is pride now involved at the end? If he is so concerned for his family, why doesn't he know when to cut bait, when to draw the line?

The climax is powerful, but confusing. Why does Evans continue to the bitter end? Why does Wade do what he does? He wanted to be rescued by his gang. But when they arrive, he takes actions that seem unlikely for an outlaw gang leader. Perhaps we are to think Wade has been changed, by his proximity to Evans, but that is hard to accept. As much as life, especially life on the edge of lawlessness in the old west, was gray and not black-and-white, the moral ambiguity that the movie ends with is unsatisfying. The conflict remains essentially unresolved.

Why does evil and its people seem so more interesting and exciting than integrity and upright people? In 3:10 to Yuma, it is clear that Crowe's character is more intriguing. He is attractive, even seductive, to many, while Bale's character is another peon to be trodden on and discarded, if not ignored. And at the end is Evan's sacrifice a worthy sacrifice? Has he brought Wade to justice? If not, of what value is the sacrifice? How often do we get sucked into a journey, a quest, a project, for the right reasons only for it to transform into something else that binds us relentlessly to a path that perhaps the Lord has not paved for us? 3:10 to Yuma makes us think on this question.
Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. I would say good modern western but not great. The film had some great shoot out scenes but fell short in the area of character consistency and plot integrity. Specifically, I really didn't get Russell Crowe's character, Ben Wade. The film attempted to depict Wade as an evil villian but then gave you hints he wasn't that bad. I'll let you discover those hints for yourself. These hints were intended to serve the purpose that his character could do something good for someone else besides himself and not be out of character. However, it just didn't work for me. While the hints were interesting I saw no internal struggle within Ben Wade about doing good vs. evil. Others may have seen some good in him but he didn't see any in himself. So when he is given the opportunity to do something good at the climax of the movie, I found myself finding it very hard to believe that he would choose to think of others over himself. Anyone else think this way about his character?