No one knows quite what to do with the Western these days. Maybe the genre has just gone out of fashion, maybe it became too riddled with clichés, maybe movie-goers love CGI too much to appreciate a nineteenth-century action flick, but I suspect the core problem is that the classic Western is a fairy tale: the violent, lawless wilderness breached by the noble forces of civilization. Those stark black-and-white morals—conveyed literally with the iconic black and white hats—seem archaic now, not necessarily because of the rigid ethical dichotomy but because this particular metaphor is obsolete. We’re uncomfortable demonizing the American Indian (as we should be), we tend to romanticize the untamed wilderness, and we know too much about how the West was won to celebrate that victory without some reservation.
The romance of the Western can be charming, yes, but it’s a musty charm, even in most contemporary examples of the genre, and 3:10 to Yuma is one of that majority. Despite the fresh acting, smooth direction, and Deadwood-esque profanities, it still feels very much like what it is: a remake of a fifty-year-old movie, a lovingly preserved museum piece.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a struggling Arizona rancher who volunteers to serve on a posse taking Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a notorious outlaw, to justice via the titular 3:10 train. It’s a dangerous job—not least because Wade’s gang is still on the loose, led in his absence by the volatile young Charlie Prince (Ben Foster)—but the bounty is substantial, and Evans, an honorable man, is desperate to save his ranch and win back the respect of his disappointed wife and contemptuous teenage son.
3:10 lets us know early on that Wade is a bad guy. We witness the ruthless, unsentimental efficiency with which he leads an assault on a heavily armed stagecoach, going so far as to shoot one of his own men to prevent the accomplice from being used as a hostage. But the movie also takes pains to point out that Wade is an intelligent, intellectual man with a wry sense of humor. He sketches birds! He suavely seduces barmaids! He shuts down mutiny among his gang by quoting Proverbs!
Frankly, all that makes me think of Public Enemies, Bryan Burrough’s impeccably researched account of the early days of the F.B.I., which, among things, brutally dismantles the mythology surrounding such “romantic” outlaws as Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers. But OK, 3:10 is just a movie. I’ll go with it—without much fuss, even, because I’ll happily believe that the sharp, magnetic Russell Crowe can sketch birds, quote Proverbs, and seduce just about anyone. Crowe delivers a rich, “still waters” sort of performance here, the kind in which silence is heavy with meaning and a single line of dialogue means more than the words would imply. His Wade is an excellent (and often cruel) judge of character, and watching him size up each member of the posse—identifying vulnerabilities and striking without warning—is as thrilling as the stagecoach heist. You can see the shrewd calculations in his eyes and in each carefully chosen word he wields.
Crowe is, of course, well-matched in Christian Bale, another chameleon-like actor who elevates everything in which he appears. Bale’s Evans has an odd blend of optimism and world-weariness, and Bale dramatizes that beautifully. Thanks to him, the trite conflict between loving father and rebellious son (and its inevitable resolution) possesses far more emotional heft than deserved. And the clashes between Wade and Evans are electric. One could describe Wade as Evans’s tempter, but that oversimplifies the intricacies and depth of their sparring. Wade isn’t merely offering a bribe; he’s offering a different life, a different moral code. And Evans isn’t merely rejecting money; he’s reaffirming who he is and what he values.
In fact, I quite liked 3:10 to Yuma nine-tenths of the way through. I liked the way the movie acknowledged Wade’s appealing qualities without ever shying away from his sociopathic capacity for violence. At one point, Evans’s son William insists that Wade isn’t “all bad,” but Wade rebuts the boy’s evidence. What William sees as benevolence (saving the posse from Indians, for example), Wade puts down as self-interest, finally stating, “Kid, I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t as rotten as hell.” Crowe’s delivery of the line is fascinating: neither mocking nor self-loathing but perfectly matter-of-fact. I liked that, the way the movie seemed to be dismissing William’s romantic notions not with cynicism or sentimentality but with cool realism.
But then the genre kicks in, the story takes an unfortunate Angels with Dirty Faces turn, and the romance of the classic Western comes roaring back. William feels vindicated, and I feel betrayed. And I remember why I get impatient with Westerns. 3:10 to Yuma is a good one, no doubt, and Crowe and Bale are a captivating pair, but damn, why put all that talent into a genre that uses color-coded hats?