Tuesday, May 20, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

The Western is back with a vengeance, and I love it. The genre is digging out of the grave like the undead, one rotten hand protruding from the dirt and mud, ready to crush the world in its zombie fingers.

I cut my teeth on a lot of movie sub-genres—post-apocalypse, zombie, slasher, spy, Seagal, Van Damme (yes, they are both categories unto themselves). Westerns were always a prominent feature in this mix; from the Man with No Name trilogy, to Django, to the Great Silence, the Searchers, the Wild Bunch, Unforgiven, and everything in between.

This rash of New Jack Westerns is pretty sweet. From the modern day setting of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the pseudo-Western, No Country for Old Men, to the late nineteenth-century Australian outback of The Proposition, this revival has been consistently solid. They are grim, they are savage, and they are not to be trifled with. (Though, I still feel a pain every time I am reminded that Ridley Scott is attempting to adapt Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian for the screen. Unless he has the sac to go with an NC-17 rating, all hope is lost.)

2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (the second adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s story) is an admirable addition to this canon. I can’t stand Westerns where everyone has grime streaked faces, but a set of perfect pearly whites, and the grills of everyone here—from Peter Fonda and that retarded kid from “Freaks and Geeks” (Ben Foster), to mega-stars Christian Bale and Russell Crowe—are adequately grizzled (maybe not to a wholly realistic degree, but decent enough so to suspend my disbelief—they probably have it in their contracts that their grill can’t be too fucked up. Besides, Bale is Welsh. He might have a cultural sensitivity where teeth are concerned).

At the core, 3:10 to Yuma is about the depths desperate men will sink to, and about trying to find God in a Godless land. Bale plays Dan Evans, family man, rancher, a pussy according to his oldest son. He is a former Yankee soldier missing the lower portion of his leg. He’s a good man just trying to hold his family together and scrape by until the wet season comes. This shit is dry. Seriously, the only rain Evans has seen in months is the monsoon of shit the world keeps dumping on him. He owes this banker dickweed a shit ton of money, he’s got one son who’s tubercular, another who thinks he’s a bitch for not shooting said dickweed banker when he burns down their barn, and his wife doesn’t respect him. At one point he tells her, “No one can think less of me.”

Crowe plays Ben Wade, a burgeoning artist with a poetic soul, who also happens to be a legendary stick up man. You can tell he’s all deep and shit because while waiting to stick up a stage coach he sticks a quick pencil drawing of a hawk to the branch the hawk he was just sketching was just sitting on. He likes to quote the Bible, especially Proverbs, has a gun called “the Hand of God,” and really just wants a good woman and a little bit of peace.

Despite any personal feelings about the actors, both of the leads do an admirable job with their characters. There is a solid supporting cast, including the aforementioned Pete Fonda, who plays Wade’s nemesis, a bounty hunter named McElroy, who is on hire to the Pinkertons. He blows up a horse, and then has Pirate Steve from Dodgeball pull a bullet out of his gut without anything to dull the pain. He is a rough, rough man. Foster plays Wade’s sociopathic wingman, Charlie Prince. There is a demented glee in his loyalty to Wade, and in his destructive mayhem. He’s the kind of dude who would shoot you for scuffing his Puma.

Evans and spawn first stumble across Wade and Co.’s hijacking in progress while attempting to round up their stray cattle. Later, Evans is key in distracting Wade while Fonda and posse get the drop on him in a saloon after Wade banged the bartender and drew her nekkid. No one wants to help transport Wade to the town of Contention, to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison, for fear of reprisal by his bloodthirsty gang of outlaws. Against the protests of his wife, Evans goes along for the ride for the price of $200. “We won’t make it through the next six days if I don’t do this,” he tells her. Desperation trumps everything else.

Wade is man of conscience, he just wants to do right by his family, run his farm, and teach his boys the proper way to be men. He is surrounded by McElroy, who has no need to read any book but the Bible, but will unflinchingly mow down Apache women and children. Wade throws out bible verses like bird seed, but has no qualms about killing. He is a foil to McElroy; he quotes scripture, but doesn’t hide behind the hypocrisy. Wade knows he is a bad man and doesn’t use sanctimonious duplicity to mask his depravity.

The good guys have boundaries. That is what makes them the good guys, and that is why they will lose. For all their prayers, for all their piety, God has abandoned these men in a world where there is no black and white. “I’ve been standing on one leg for three damn years, waiting for God to do me a favor, and he ain’t listening,” Evans says. In the end he is alone, and this is where he learns to do what he must. The only chance he has is to cross his own lines, to stand on his own against the darkness, in the darkness.

Through the journey to Contention, their numbers gradually dwindle, and Wade plays head games with Evans. The two form an uneasy, yet symbiotic relationship along the road; one can no longer exist without the other.

One of my favorite badass movie moment clich├ęs is, when after a prolonged period of waiting, the doomed hero stands, clenches his jaw, and says, “It’s time.” With the tension created in those two words, you know all hell is about to come down. The last hint of God for these characters is a sketch Wade draws of Evans on the inside cover of a hotel Bible as they are about to run the gauntlet to the titular 3:10 train to Yuma.

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