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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Newton's Cradle: 3:10 to Yuma, Reviewed

Hell and damnation, I lost the start I'd made on this. I think I opened by making a vow to find a movie in current release that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test, but Friday was not that day. In its defense, though 3:10 to Yuma fails it more passively, whereas Shoot 'Em Up is clearly #2, so it tries harder. In short, only ONE of the two women in 3:10 is a prostitute!

I haven't seen the original 3:10 to Yuma with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, something I'd like to remedy in the near future. In the meantime, however, this version provides plenty of grist for my always verbose mill. I'll start with the fact that for something that is so reflexively classed as a Western, it's an odd one. Oh, certainly it's all about the frontier, the Other, the marginalized, and the boundaries of the social contract, which often seem to be back thataway a piece. But the stakes are small and the hats defiantly neither Black nor White. (Well, of course, there is literally a Black hat, and a fine, fine hat it is, even if it does remind me of a completely different hat.

Christian Bale, of course, is all about the layers and excels in subtle. In the case of 3:10 to Yuma, he has considerable assistance from the script. Dan Evans is inarguably a failure. He cannot feed his family, and he will not [finish his sentences, apparently. I think I meant t o say that he will not push back violently or strut about, making manly demands.—Ed.]. Practically his first line of dialogue is "Please don't do this," as thugs sent by his banker burn his barn to the ground for nonpayment. He limps through his life literally, thanks to a "friendly fire" injury when his state militia unit was conscripted to defend D.C., and metaphorically under the weight of his wife's disappointment, his older son's contempt, and the world's soul-crushingly thorough scorn.

Another actor would have trod the Jason McCord/Tommy Yellow path—wallowing, glowering, cowering, and chewing the scenery—but not Bale. His smile is rueful but genuinely pleased as his younger son brags of his role in the war. The unexpected chuckle he gives as he tells his wife, "No one could think less of me," lends depth to his subsequent line, "I've been waiting for 3 and a half years for God to do me a favor." And his unapologetic declaration that Zipacna (yes, it does always come back to Stargate SG-1, unless of course it comes back to Jean Webster) "was an asshole" just after Zippy becomes the first and most ignominiously murdered of their posse is a welcome surprise in lieu of the dour, self-righteous monologue I half expected.

Like Hank Hill, Dan Evans is complicated and bears close watching. Rather than being positive that he is the story's rock-solid man of decency, Bale lets us see just how much life—and not just life on the frontier—has eroded not just his tolerance for superficial niceties, but every internalized check on behavior. The result is something almost unheard of in Westerns: A character—a lead character, a would-be White Hat—whose behavior is almost completely unpredictable.

Certainly this injects a kind of tension into the story that is also not common in Westerns. This is born of the fact that Dan (curious that it feels "righter" to call him Dan, as Wade does), being acultural, is not just unknown but unknowable. (Which is especially fascinating with an actor like Bale, who tells you who the character is in every line, every move, every expression.) In pleasantly nerve-wracking character limbo, the audience is left to accept the interpretations of other characters, however false they ring in our ears. (Yes, we're talking about things ringing false in our ears.)

Dan's being culturally unmoored has especially interesting implications for his relationship with his sons. With his identity as a human being in question, Dan is something of a chaos player of a father. His rage against the bank's thugs, his idolization of Wade, his contempt for his father's weakness all go unanswered. But where the audience might wait for Dan's character to uncover itself, William is the voice of every doubt, every criticism, every gob-smacked moment.

When Dan rolls over for Wade to save his own life and the life of his sons, we want to think better of him. We want to assure William that his father is braver and wiser than he can know, even as we wonder why Dan should be pointlessly brave, reflexively antagonistic to the Black Hat. After all, it's really the money at stake. The only life remaining to be saved is that of a Pinkerton, and we know how Al feels about them.

A better example still leads up to Wade's arrest. Dan (who has saved that Pinkerton after all) alone holds his ground in the saloon as what passes for law in the town cowers outside. Wade is still upstairs, unable to resist a bid for more permanent female affection. Other than knowing that it's less than 30 minutes into the movie and no one's yet mentioned the titular conveyance, making it unlikely that we'll lose either of our leads so soon, the audience has very little idea how this will play out.

Wade's actions are at least familiar: He's the sensitive, artistic thug who sees himself as Robin Hood. Where possible, he'd just as soon not shoot a landsman in the head. He attempts to buy Dan's noninterference. And Dan decides to play. And the audience, still inclined to see Dan through the eyes of his elder son, squirms as he names his price. And we writhe as Dan wheedles another dollar and another.

Of course, it's possible—likely to the point of being inevitable—that Dan is stalling to secure Wade's capture. So why writhe? Why writhe even if he isn't? Why shouldn't he get the money that will save the ranch and feed the family? And why is it that his decision, moments later, to take the railroad man's money—to join the posse, to undertake something monumentally stupid and dangerous to achieve exactly the same goal—a relief?

It seems I must amend my earlier statement: If it doesn't all come back to Stargate or Jean Webster, it will definitely come back to Diana Wynne Jones:
"A gentlemen never works magic against a woman, particularly his own mama."
Gentlemen, it seemed to Christopher made things unreasonably difficult for themselves in that case.

The movie isn't at all simplistic in its departure from Western conventions. It's not that Dan is a worse man than we'd expect, and Wade is a better one. As Wade himself tells William Evans, he is all bad, as no one with his history and experience could be otherwise. And as the shallow civility and the superficial trappings of principle fall away from the rest of the posse, Dan is left to be the hero of his own story and that of his sons.

And as much as this is a story about the binary opposition of Wade and Dan, there's an appealing undercurrent in which all men are one and all stories are the same. One character's rage, betrayal, amorality, whatever, may find its dead end (because they really kick you out of the Western club if there aren't casualties), but his momentum is carried over into a newly introduced character, situation, or scene. (My personal favorite is when the gang literally comes out the other side of a tunnel to find Wade captive to and being tortured by a low life whose even-lower-life brother Wade may or may not have killed.)

The story is by no means perfect in keeping up with its own level of complexity: Dan resorts to mumbling "decent" a few to many times; the doc's assertion that torturing anyone, even Wade, is morally wrong, falls curiously flat; and Wade's face turn at the end is surprising more because the motivation behind it remains obscure than because the audience's faith in humanity is believably renewed by it.

In general, Wade's characterization isn't given the attention it deserves and needs to balance the care lavished developing Dan. Not being much impressed with Mr. Crowe's acting chops, my instinct would be to lay the blame at his feet, but I can't do that in good conscience. I'm afraid there are simply too many shortcuts taken with Wade. For example, when some of the gang ponder applying Wade's own rules to the situation and abandoning their pursuit, Charlie Prince (Wade's lieutenant, played expertly and thoroughly ookily by Ben Foster) savagely reminds them what Wade has done for them and what they owe him. This (and, no doubt, not wanting to die at the inventive hands inspired by insanity) is enough for the gang, but not really for the audience. What has Wade done that would inspire loyalty and the willingness to risk life and limb for him? It's an interesting question never explored.

But Crowe is good. He's unnerving and vaguely repellant, but in a charismatic way. It is my theory that this is not acting. However, my theory is undermined by some work that is inarguably acting—and acting very nearly up to the level of Bale's at that—near the end when the canvas has been all but pared down to Wade and Dan, with their respective "sons" still very much at issue in how the story plays out.

Most everyone is good. Logan Lerman deserves special mention for not being simply the teenage voice of rock-bottom parental approval ratings. He does not let William's anger and frustration with his father become either a simple reflection of what the audience is feeling or, worse, a performance that is directive to the audience.

Ben Foster, as I mentioned earlier, is great as Charlie Prince. His attachment to Wade, as unexplored as the script leaves it, is a snippet come to life from the dime novels we glimpse on William's bedside table. As such, he provides a grim prophecy of the boy's future in the absence of an alternative role model to such outlaws. He plays just enough of the little-boy-lost that there's an involuntary, but genuine, pang in how he meets his end.

Both M and I were sure that we'd seen Dallas Roberts (the dandiefied train representative) in something before. He was Sam Phillips in Walk the Line, but that didn't seem to be it. Certainly the sense of familiarity with him is in part due to the necessity of having this character, regardless of how many other conventions of the genre one is flouting. Still, he too delivers good that he can truly call his own.

I'd best skip over the subject of Alan Tudyk, but rest assured a certain creator of a certain series about a certain Vampire Slayer is not fooling me and he's on my list.



Blogger SCM said...

Your post presents an interesting evaluation of 3:10 to Yuma. While I share your appreciation for the excellent acting in the film, I was disappointed to see that you did not really address the ending and it’s rather (in my opinion) convenient nature. I had a hard time swallowing Wade’s rather out-of-character change of heart after hearing Dan’s heart-wrenching life story, and as a result felt cheated by the movie’s abrupt closure. In addition, I found Dan’s goal change to be slightly out-of-character, although not as much so as Wade’s. Despite the disappointments which life has dealt him (many of which you articulate in your post), I felt that either the script or Bale’s acting set Dan up as a calculated, methodical man throughout the entire movie. While his desire to be the tragic (and his son’s) hero puts a romantic, almost “feel-good” closure on an otherwise dark plotline, I saw the transformation as abrupt, uncharacteristic, and rather unbelievable, dampening an otherwise brilliant performance. Outside of these end-of-film details, however, I generally agree with your assessment of 3:10 to Yuma as an overall entertaining piece with memorable acting but underdeveloped characters.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Matilda said...

I was disappointed to see that you did not really address the ending and it’s rather (in my opinion) convenient nature. I had a hard time swallowing Wade’s rather out-of-character change of heart after hearing Dan’s heart-wrenching life story, and as a result felt cheated by the movie’s abrupt closure.

I think we're probably in substantial agreement about the ending. I only addressed Wade's ending briefly and obliquely in an effort not to reveal spoilers that were too specific, but I do agree that Wade's suddenly deciding to "play along" and what follows are at least somewhat disappointing because the character turn has not been earned.

As for Dan's ending. You say:

While his desire to be the tragic (and his son’s) hero puts a romantic, almost “feel-good” closure on an otherwise dark plotline, I saw the transformation as abrupt, uncharacteristic, and rather unbelievable, dampening an otherwise brilliant performance.

I'm not sure to what degree we differ on the subject of Dan. I'm not sure that his goal changes so much as it clarifies. In the beginning of the movie, he scrapes along from deadline to deadline. He's so caught up in the basic survival needs of him and his family that the less tangible necessities are out of reach. He not only doesn't have the time, energy, or luxury to be a role model, he himself has lost faith in why we are human to one another that he has no answer to why they should not answer violence with violence, or better yet, preemptively strike with violence as Wade does. He has a vague, somewhat unthinking respect for order and progress as a frontier man and a veteran ought, but as he sees all of the mechanisms of order and progress revealing themselves to be nothing more than a fragile shell, what seemed like more ephemeral luxuries are revealed as at the core of what it is to be human.

I don't think of his decision to be the man to take Wade to that train when no one else would as "romantic" in the sense that it's an explicit suicide bid or a way to make up for a lifetime (from his son's perspective) of failings in one brief and shining moment.

I agree it has a patness and ironic tendency toward "feel-goodness" that isn't up to the level of the rest of the movie's complexity. But I see it more as an expansion and refocusing of Dan's original goals, rather than a last-minute shift.

12:25 AM  

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