Monday, January 28, 2008

Snake On a Train

Today's movie: 3:10 to Yuma.

I wanted to see this in the theater, but things just didn't line up, so I nabbed the DVD when I saw it. It's a remake of a 1957 film by director Delmer Daves and based on a 1953 Elmore Leonard short story of the same name. The current movie is directed by James Mangold (of Walk the Line fame) and stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. I've not seen the 1957 movie, but my sense is the present movie is not a direct copy, certainly not a shot-by-shot one.

If there are only 10 or 12 stories in the world, there must be only four or five used in Westerns. This is not the movie to renounce that convention; if you like Westerns, you'll like 3:10 to Yuma. The story involves the notorious outlaw gang leader Ben Wade (Crowe), who is apprehended after his gang robs the payroll stagecoach and kills the crew of Pinkerton men hired to guard the shipment. The local law attempts to transport Wade to neighboring town Contention to put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma; there he will be held in a proper facility and will face trial for current and past charges. The business of getting Wade to the train is a tall order, since his notorious outlaw gang is focused on springing him from custody, and the Pinkerton men who might help are all dead.

Assistance is offered by the poor rancher Dan Evans (Bale), who is desperate for money to repay debts which are threatening the loss of his homestead and land. Evans is a Civil War veteran who wears a prosthetic leg, a good but mild man who has lost the respect of his wife and children. The desire to keep his house and provide properly for his family is born of a deep moral conviction, a moral compass which the rest of his family has perhaps lost sight of, particularly his 14-year-old son William (played by Logan Lerman) who openly scoffs at his father's nonviolent nature. Evans signs on to the effort to guard Wade in his trip to Yuma because the whole region lives in fear of Wade's gang, and Evans feels somebody needs to step up and do the right thing. For his efforts he demands a fee of $200, which will help him hang onto his land. (In one poignant scene, Evans' wife, played by Gretchen Mol, begins to realize just how much peril her husband has signed up for, and tells him "No one will think less of you" if he decides better of it. "No one can think less of me, Alice," he says, knowingly.

There's the standard frontier subtext that people inhabiting these remote areas need to be self-sufficient, and many are a law unto themselves because there is nothing else. Where there is law and order there's an improvised and personal sense of interpretation and enforcement that contributes to the sense of disorientation these people feel: trying to eke out a hardscrabble existence from a ruthless place, they lack gravity's single, reliable arrow. You need to know who your friends are, and you can expect to need to lean on them, and they on you. And even then, nothing is certain. This was a very different world from our own.

This is really a visually satisfying film, and the key characters are wonderfully written and fleshed out as well as in any Western I've seen. Comparisons are made to Clint Eastwood's 1992 film Unforgiven, and these comparisons seem apt. In both movies the line between good and evil is broad and shifting, and nobody's hands are clean. Crowe's Ben Wade is an attractive and capable and charming man, someone whom even Evans's pious wife has trouble keeping at arm's length; yet he is also quite aware of the trail of wreckage that lies in his life's wake. Bale's Dan Evans is a good man living in a harsh environment where a bit of hardness is maybe adaptive, both for himself and as a lesson to his boys. This all seems deftly handled.

My only criticism is that, after such beautiful character and plot developments, I didn't quite buy the story's wrap-up. I felt the movie's pacing and length were fine, but I think some additional footage would be needed for me to really buy into the film's conclusion. Maybe that's just me (I've not read too many other reviews.) But I sat thinking for a while after the film ended, and I find myself coming back to its imagery and basic moral dilemmas a couple days later. Whatever the conclusions, the movie's lessons don't reside in the wrap-up but rather in the questions raised throughout the film.

So my grade improves: B+

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