Coming up with a pithy title to express my admiration for this movie is a lot harder than I thought. I had to do it, though. I’ve been eager to prove that we do occasionally watch movies that aren’t depression-inducingly awful. It’s not all Man-Thing and Omen remakes around here. Over the past couple of weeks we also watched The Godfather Part II (Canyon had never seen it), the Big Love season two finale (I’m hoping to come back to that at some point soon), and Cast Away (which I gather is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I thought it was wonderful and profoundly moving).
Thanks to the usually unbearable News Corp scum at the Sunday Times, we saw a free preview of James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma last night, and thought it was excellent. A quick synopsis; Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a debt-ridden farmer who accidentally helps capture outlaw scumbag Ben Wade (Russell “Le Roq” Crowe), and joins a band of Pinkerton agents and deputies (and a vet played by the truly magnificent Alan Tudyk), given the task of taking Wade to the town of Contention to catch the eponymous train. All the while they are chased by Wade’s crew led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster on terrifying form, and not for the usual skeevy reasons), as well as Wade’s various enemies.
Stephanie Zacharek’s Salon review says a lot of things I wanted to say, but I think she was a little hard on the movie for being slow. It certainly feels long, but by the time the main characters arrive at their destination in time for the final showdown (just after 3:00pm, obviously), everything you have seen and learned about Dan Evans and Ben Wade inform everything that happens after that, making every gunshot and fateful decision burst with emotion. It was pretty overwhelming, and I suspect that at one point (if you see the movie, you’ll know exactly which one I mean), I even made a yelp noise from all of the surprise.
As Canyon pointed out in a previous post, John Patterson, LA film critic for the Guardian, criticised Mangold for wanting to remake a movie that couldn’t be twisted into a parable for the war in Iraq. Yeah, Mangold, how dare you want to remake a movie that you’ve loved since you were a kid. Bush is gonna get away with murder on a massive scale, and all because you wanted to remake a film with Van Heflin in it. There will be blood on your hands!
Patterson is, of course, being really silly. Once upon a time I thoroughly enjoyed his columns, especially when he talked about his love of LA and fears for the US film industry. That was back when I used to think that Peter Biskind’s excellent Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was a bible of what was wrong with the world of film. Since then I’ve realised how daft that is, perhaps because I have a lot of faith in US cinema, and am constantly surprised by the amount of good movies and good filmmakers in America. That’s not to say they all are. The majority are thoroughly dreadful, but acting like 70s Hollywood was cranking out movies as good as Nashville every week is epic denial. The industry was responsible for a lot of crap then, and it is now too. In the midst of this, there are people who understand how to make great movies, and if the studios are nice enough or bold enough or desperate enough for some prestige, then we will get bold movies. Patterson may understand this, but he’s pissed because no living filmmakers live up to his standards. Except Paul Thomas Anderson. I share the love, but there are other filmmakers out there who deserve some of that love.
So I agree to disagree with Patterson a lot, but this really took the cake. Making films or TV shows or comics or books that take the war on terror as a template are a dime a dozen at the moment, and if Patterson doesn’t know that, he should stop rewatching his knackered DVD copy of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool and go to Blockbuster to hire Battlestar Galactica, for a start. Then he should read Marvel’s Civil War crossover, if he can stomach the stupidity. Then he should see how a great filmmaker like Alphonso Cuaron can make a movie like Children of Men elegantly comment on our society without pointing the camera at the mechanics of how he does it. CoM is incredibly relevant and contemporary, but it manages that almost as an aside, while still being primarily an action thriller based around the Nativity.
Those are three things off the top of my head, and there are many more things out there. War on terror comment can be found everywhere, in a headspinning topsy-turvy way like BSG season 3, with the humans as insurgents (an astonishingly bold move by Ronald D. Moore and co.), or in a hamfisted way like in the final third of Studio 60. So should Mangold be chastised for not remaking A Fistful of Dynamite, or Rio Bravo, or any number of other potentially relevant movies?
—-Beware spoilers below—-
Seeing as how 3:10 to Yuma dares to explore the human condition in such a shocking manner, I very heartily say no. It could be said that 3:10 is about redemption, something that you think will pay off at the end of the movie, but primarily it is about the heart of darkness, and how humans attempt to cover it over with civilised behaviour. The Westerns genre is perfectly adapted to cover this ground. You only have to watch a deconstructionist work like Unforgiven to see that, but older Westerns contain that too, i.e. The Searchers. This is right off the top of my head, so please forgive me for being obvious.
My favourite example is Deadwood; even in the first season you see the townspeople struggle to keep their dignity and create a fair and safe society, with Bullock and Swearengen representing the forces of civilisation and brutality (and, of course, they have both impulses fighting within themselves). In 3:10, a lot of this drama and comment is hidden. It presents itself as a pre-deconstruction Western, in much the same way as Kevin Costner’s excellent Open Range, and lulls you into a nostalgic reverie, waiting for the genre conventions to slot into place.
To a certain extent they do, but all the while Wade picks at the scabs of all around, pointing out the hypocrisy of his captors for treating him as an animal while they are just the same. The Pinkertons chasing him are thugs, Evans is a Civil War vet who seems to have lost his leg in battle, Evans’s son is eager to kill and be seen as a man, Tucker is a gangster working for the especially unscrupulous loan shark that has threatened Evans’ farm, etc. To Wade, humans are scum, and civility is a sham. Perhaps he believes this to justify his childhood (brutal and tragic), or perhaps he’s just too lazy to be better himself. He certainly uses it as a crutch to explain his own murderous behavior (he may be a charmer, but he’s also a terrifying murdering animal, as shown in some shocking scenes). Why try to be good? It’s obvious there is no such thing as a good man.
At the end of the movie, Wade tries charm, bribery and threats to make Evans change his mind about taking him to the fateful train of the title, but again and again Evans refuses. Wade has to rationalise this as foolish bravado or desperation due to his debt, but when Evans resolves to complete his mission even when Pinkerton agent Grayson Butterfield promises to make things right for him, Wade is rattled. Could this be the good man he thought didn’t exist?
He gets his answer after Charlie Prince promises a reward if any person in Contention kills someone holding Wade prisoner. The marshall, who arrogantly claimed that Contention is a lawful town, chickens out and is ruthlessly killed by Prince. The townsfolk rush to take up arms to kill Wade’s captors, but by that point of the movie, there’s only Evans willing to complete the mission. With Wade in tow, he races to the train station, and mayhem breaks out. Civility disappears as the entire town tries to kill Evans and, hilariously, Wade too, not realising they are meant to be saving him. Carnage ensues, with the townsfolk trying to kill Evans and Wade, and Prince and the rest of his gang killing the townsfolk and trying to save Wade. It’s a fantastically exciting scene.
Wade gets a chance to escape from Evans, and finds out the shocking truth about Evans’ leg; he lost it in a stupid accident, and was not the hardened war vet he seemed to be. So why the eagerness to do the right thing? To show his son there is a better way to accomplish things, and that there is right as well as wrong in the world. Wade agrees to get on the train, knowing at last that his beliefs were wrong. There truly is a good man in the world, and if he succeeds in completing his task, there will be another good man to follow him. Through this act, he could be redeemed. That he has already escaped Yuma prison twice and intends to again is just a bonus.
Sadly, it doesn’t go according to plan, and Prince kills Evans, at which point Wade goes ballistic, killing his entire posse in a heartbeat. Then, in atonement for his sin, he gets on the train, hands over his guns, and heads towards the prison, leaving a grieving son and a half-dead town. It’s immensely satisfying. Patterson might want to see a Bush caricature running a town like a robber baron, but I’ll take the gleeful realization that the film I thought was about redemption was actually more interested in the battle against our animal nature, and how it often goes wrong. That the film ended on a hopeful note (Evans’ son learns the hard way that the way of the gun is a dead-end, and Wade realises he can be a better man once he controls his murderous temper) instead of a bleakly nihilistic one is one of the triumphs of the film.
Did I mention that Crowe and Bale were absolutely magnificent? No? Well, I’m mentioning it now.