Thursday, September 27, 2007

3:10 to Yuma (2007) review

As a child, I remember watching every single version of Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" (1967)--even the Italian-language ones. It was a real revelation watching the films of Leone, because I had been raised on the great John Ford's westerns, and the differences were obvious. Leone's vision was of a grittier, morally ambivalent frontier, a place where people victimized each other in the shit and the dust. This was a far-cry from Ford's vision, which had an edge, but where the "good guys" and "bad guys" were obvious. You knew who-was-who, and where they stood most of the time.
Today, this notion seems very naive and quaint--if not downright dunderheaded--and it did forty-years-ago too. It should be remembered that in his later movies, Ford began to show the beginnings of the cynicism that was to come in the "Spaghetti Westerns" of Leone and Sergio Corbucci, and Sam Peckinpah.

These were the "revisionist" westerns, and so is the remake of "3:10 to Yuma," a new classic of the genre. Looking-back, the Ford films are certainly classics, but also terminal artifacts of the ideals and naivete of their time, when Americans badly needed heroes to emulate and to give them hope in a world that was either crumbling or on fire. Americans needed a sense that the "good guys" prevailed, at least sometimes. In Ford's films, it was almost every time. That must have been satisfying to audiences during the Great Depression and WWII, but what about today?
While "3:10 to Yuma" benefits from the last fifty years of changes that came to the western genre, it still has some of the hopes and ideals that Ford conveyed in his many Medieval morality plays that just happened to take place on the old frontier. The difference is, the remake's not starry-eyed and over-credulous about the prospects for justice, and it has the same ambiguity that marked the other revisionist westerns (westerns are "oaters" in the parlance of the fans of the genre). The original had a similar feel to it, and was definitely ahead of its time, a real standout. Director James Mangold's remake is being released during yet another era where Americans are having an identity crisis, and where moral guideposts appear to have vanished.

This is why the western is usually a good reference-point for all us: it was a time and a place where people faced similar dilemmas, and nothing seemed true anymore. Cherished values didn't appear to work in-the-context of a lawless frontier where a man could be shot for looking at someone wrong, and at the wrong time. The easiest way to look at it is to view the old west as a laboratory where human will and character were tested. Who are we? Where do we stand? What is the right thing to do within our present circumstances? What is the honorable thing to do? What are the responsibilities of people with ideals in a bad place and a bad time or era? What is a hero? Really? Right now, most Americans feel like the values they were taught are so much bullshit, a joke.

The identity crisis in the 1950s was the aftermath of McCarthyism and the second Red Scare, a time when everyone was afraid of being called a "communist" by their neighbors simply for pointing-out things that were wrong in American society. "Red-baiting" and witch hunts were everywhere. Our democratic ideals seemed imperiled by an anti-communist crusade that swept the nation ("communist" could be swapped for the catch-word "terrorist" today). In the 1960s, it was Vietnam and the atrocities committed there in our name by the state and war profiteers, and there were numerous other warning-signs that things were headed in a bad direction. The same is true today. It was in the immediate aftermath of McCarthyism that Elmore Leonard wrote the original story that became the 1957 version, and it still informs this new version.

Into our current bloody-fray comes 3:10 to Yuma with its hypothetical story that rings-true in our own troubled times. The original hasn't generally been considered a major classic of the genre, and has been largely forgotten until this remake, though it has a lot going for it. Glenn Ford was excellent as the also ambiguous Ben Wade, but his motivations were less clear, and he wasn't always known for playing the "bad guy." But Crowe fits-the-bill better, partly based on his recent behaviors outside of the movies. There are a number of significant changes to the remake, and a few characters are jettisoned without any major revisions to the story. The big difference is that where it was hard to tell if Ben Wade was just a psychopathic killer or maybe a social bandit--a kind of Robin Hood--in a bad land in the 1957 original, it's even harder to tell today. Is Crowe's version of the outlaw Wade a good man? Is he bad? Does it matter? His character's comments on the bounty killer (played perfectly by Peter Fonda) and the Pinkertons rings-true: they could be worse than him, and handily. This is still true today, only the players are different.

The remake's set-pieces are the same as the 1957 version (the struggling ranch, Bizbee, Arizona, the unsettled frontier, and the Hotel room), and both movies have very strong similarities with the same basic message: what is one's responsibility to their community in a place where nobody else seems to care? This movie resonates strongly in a time when the role of men in American society has become uncertain, and when the past models of masculinity appear to be obsolete. When nothing seems true, we all go to the westerns to find some truth, some kind of honor. As in the original, the film's protagonist and anti-hero is a failing cattle rancher named Dan Evans (played with incredible conviction and subtlety by Christian Bale) who needs a break, and soon.

Evans is a Civil War veteran who's lost his leg, and feels abandoned by his country, and he tends to shirk from a fight. He's not a coward, but he's tired and beaten-down by the land barons and the crooks (usually the same thing). The movie opens with the torching of his barn by a local land boss and his goons who have been trying to run him and his struggling family off of their land so they can sell it to the railroads. In a time of almost unprecedented home foreclosures, you couldn't have a more timely story. His wife and western dime novel reading son are losing respect for him as a provider, and his options are slim. Enter Ben Wade, played with incredible skill by Russell Crowe, a bad guy any audience would be fascinated by.

It seems the local sheriff and a group of Pinkertons (a nice touch making them major players, just as they were in the old west), deputies, and a bounty hunter have captured and are conveying Wade after the robbery of an armored wagon. Evans is offered $200 to accompany them in taking Wade to Bizbee to board a train to Yuma where a prison cell and hangman's noose awaits him. One could almost imagine Evans as a veteran of the war in Iraq. It's probably Evans's last chance to save his ranch and to show his family he is a man, but it'll probably kill him in-the-process. The problems getting Wade to Bizbee are everywhere, including run-ins with the Apaches, and ultimately, Wade's vicious gang. The simple fact of a lawless land is the posse's biggest problem, and one that's been a sore-spot of the Bush years as well. What does the law mean anymore except to serve the interests of the crooks? It's quite a ride to Bizbee, but the movie can best be described as a philosophical character study embedded within a western action-adventurer. The main players are really just Wade and Evans. It's their story, and the rest is scenery.

The viewer is presented with a very vivid and realistic portrayal of just how brutal and unrewarding life on the frontier must have been. Everyone looks perpetually dirty, scarred, and exhausted, as well as very scared. Even the slang is accurate, with Chinese railroad workers being referred to as "coolies." The bad guys are not just convincing, but appear to have been based on real people, and indeed, there were many men like this in the old west. The majority of them were murderers without any real good cause for their actions, and that's on-display here in the character of Wade's lieutenant, Charlie Prince, played by 27-year-old Ben Foster. Foster almost steals the film, and brings an incredible authenticity to the story that few westerns enjoy--you don't question that there were young killers like him throughout the frontier in countless numbers. Conversely, Crowe's Wade is both intelligent, creative (he draws), but is in-turn also a Bible-quoting psychopath. Yet, there's a sadness to him, and it's obvious he just wants the violence to end. So does Evans. This is their bond of honor.

One centerpiece of the remake that most everyone living today will recognize is when Wade is tortured--electrocuted--by a group of railroad overseers, done with a dynamite-plunger. It's best left to the imagination of those who haven't seen the movie yet, so I won't spoil it entirely. This was obviously a labor of love for everyone involved, and it shines. Shot in a glorious Panavision (TM) aspect ratio, it's got width and depth. Mangold doesn't dwell on the beauty of the vistas, but he has an extraordinary eye for composition. It's cinematic bliss. You'll almost feel you were there, and that there were people just like this who populated the real western frontier. Both Bale and Crowe shine brightest, but without the contributions of the rest of the cast and crew (and a great score by Marco Beltrami), it wouldn't work quite as well as it does. As it stands, it's nearly perfect as a North American western. Answers? There are none, only what one can command in life, and a lot of luck...luck of the draw.