Wednesday, October 03, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

It's a good movie - entertaining with action, suspense, and nice character touches - but I don't think it's a great film. Like most classical Westerns it's a morality tale, pitting the differing ideologies of two men against each other: Christian Bale's desperate yet honorable Dan Evans and Russell Crowe's confident rogue Ben Wade.

The original 1957 film is a stripped-down character piece with Glenn Ford as Wade acting like a devil on Van Heflin's shoulder, constantly trying to tempt him away from doing the right thing. That's all well and good, but in the new movie this simple clash between two men is diffused over a larger cast and more wide-ranging plot. Bale's motivations are clear, to earn money to save his family's ranch, but I can't say the same for Russell's character. Sometimes, his Ben Wade is a Hannibal Lecter-esque bad guy, eliminating more obnoxious characters to our approval and
psychoanalyzing Dan Evans, seeing what makes him tick. Sometimes he's a soulful charmer, seducing a barmaid and making pencil sketches. Sometimes he's a victim in need of civilized due process. And and sometimes he's a total villain, ruthlessly murdering those who are in his way, and not in the 'villain you love to hate' kind of way. I can't tell if it's a script problem, ascribing too many different purposes onto Wade's character, or an acting problem with Crowe unable to unify each of these different facets into a single performance. Either way, the point is the same: the movie tries to use Wade for too many different purposes, so that his function as a foil for Evans is seriously weakened. A movie that's a dramatic clash of wills between two men is only as good as my ability to discern what each of the characters is hoping to achieve.

In the end, the movie is about a simple moral question: what will Dan Evans do, persist in turning Ben Wade in or settle for an easier, safer path? It's a good and interesting moral conflict, but hampered by a basic uncertainty at the movie's core. In the end I think that James Mangold wanted to make a serious, probing ethical drama but his instincts pushed him in the direction of making a crowd-pleasing adventure, and while the two don't have to be mutually exclusive, I don't think Mangold completely pulled it off.

Anyway, good work from Peter Fonda and Ben Foster amongst the rest of the cast, and a fun ride despite my reservations.


dan said...

hey i just saw this yesterday. i agree the wade character was all over the place. but there were a couple scenes i liked that kind of posited him in handcuffs as the only free one while everyone else was trapped - dan by his idealism especially. but that might be giving it too much credit. wade's moronic final whistle should have been all it took for me to throw out the rest of the movie.

i wasn't too impressed with the moral conflict cause at no point did i ever think dan would do something other than what he did. i would have liked that character to have been a lot rougher overall and a way different ending.

Jeff McMahon said...

Yeah, how long was that horse supposed to keep up with the train?

That's another example of the movie's schizophrenia. It can't decide if it wants Wade to be a cute bad guy who whistles for his horse or a dangerous bad guy who beats guys to death for singing too loud so it tries to do both.

frankbooth said...

Speaking of horse-operas, when you gonna review Jesse James? (The damned thing FINALLY opened up here in Lumberton.)

cjKennedy said...

"the movie tries to use Wade for too many different purposes"

I think that goes a long way to explaining some of the things that continue to trouble me about the movie.

Is he complex or poorly defined? I can't decide.

Jeff McMahon said...

While I have enjoyed the discussion on CJK's blog and the Awards Daily sight where other people have put forth elaborate and complex explanations for Ben Wade's character and his actions, for the most part I think I would vote for 'poorly defined'.

I still haven't seen Jesse James (or Elah, or The Kingdom, or Eastern Promises) but hopefully reviews will be coming very soon. If only I was unemployed I could spend all day watching movies for a week or two, at which point I would declare bankruptcy.

frankbooth said...

Unemployment is great. It's the lack of money part that sucks.

cjKennedy said...

I've got it backwards...employed but still lacking money.

And yeah Jeff, I know exactly what you're saying. Ben Wade is kind of like the old car that shit keeps falling off it and you keep throwing money at it and eventually you just have to give up and admit to yourself she's broken.

I'm not there yet, but then I'm stubborn.