3:10 to Yuma

I've gotten some feedback from readers asking which of the films I watched for the SAG awards was my favorite. This is a more complicated question than it appears, partly because I'm not good at picking favorites, but also because the film I loved the most, No Country for Old Men, I watched before I got the SAG Award ballot. Of the films I specifically saw in order to vote there are two that I would wholeheartedly recommend, Juno, which has been covered in a prior column by Paul Muolo, and 3:10 to Yuma a movie that made me wonder why I don't watch more Westerns.

Based on a short story by brilliant writer Elmore Leonard, this remake of the 1957 film of the same name could be an action story about escorting a dirty rotten scoundrel on his way to the prison train, or it could be a thrilling psychological struggle between two hardened, clever men, with everything to lose. Or yanno, it could be both.

Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a struggling rancher with a wife and two children. Beleaguered by creditors, who burn his barn down in an effort to make him pay his mortgage, because that makes so much financial sense, he sets out the next day to round up his livestock. Dan is accompanied by both his boys, Mark, who has a serious illness, and Will (Logan Wade Lerman), a teenager who treats him with contempt.

But someone else has a use for Dan's cattle and the roundup doesn't go smoothly. Ben Wade (Russell Crow), who has robbed the coach so many times that this time it's armored, drives the cattle into the road, right in the path of the oncoming coach. When the dust and the bullets settle, Ben takes Dan's horses and heads to town with his gang, leaving Dan and the children on foot.

Eventually Dan makes it back to town himself, where he confronts the outlaw, demanding restitution for his cattle, his time and his annoyance. By the time they're finished talking Ben has been arrested and Butterfield, the railroad representative who wants to see the robber tried and hanged, is rounding up guards to help put Ben on the 3:10 prison train to Yuma. Dan volunteers, asking for the princely sum of two hundred dollars, which will help him get his ranch and family back on their feet. I was going to say this is where the intense psychological struggle begins, but that would be a lie. It really starts when Dan demands payment for his losses from the robbery and continues to the very last minutes of the film.

3:10 to Yuma has plenty of action, gunplay and ponies, but for me the riveting part of the film was this interplay between rancher and outlaw. Both men have everything to lose; one his life, and one his home and family, and both have been hardened by their careers, Ben because he's a leader of a gang of crooks and Dan because he lost part of his leg in the Civil War. They're equally matched in this game of wits and one-upmanship, making the outcome unpredictable.

While the entire cast's acting is superb, which is only what we expect for a film nominated for so many awards, I was particularly taken by two supporting characters; Ben Foster as Ben Wade's creepy second in command, Charlie Prince, and Logan Wade Lerman as the teenaged Will. We first meet Prince during the stagecoach robbery where he is in his element, shooting like a madman. Once Ben is arrested, Prince spends the rest of the story trying to rescue his leader. He's willing to do anything to attain his goals and the cold chill in his eyes made me think of a crazed, but loyal, dog, fighting to get to the side of his cruel master. Or maybe a shark. Or a half dog, half shark. Some kind of awful animal you wouldn't want coming after you, anyway.

Will has a nice range of emotions to portray, as he starts off as a disillusioned son who thinks his father makes mistakes at every turn. Later, he becomes one of Ben Wade's guards after he sneaks away from the ranch to follow his father to the train station and rescues everyone after Ben gets the drop on them. By attaching himself to the party, Will becomes vulnerable to Ben's manipulation, but is also given the opportunity to find his own inner strength.

It takes a special team of directors, writers and actors to make this story work, as the outlaw has to be both reprehensible and likable. As others have said before me, good against evil may make a good story but good against good makes a better story. By making the character of Ben Wade someone you can root for, the stakes are raised and your own conflict adds to the film's conflict. In lesser hands 3:10 to Yuma could be a maudlin mess instead of a tense, thrilling adventure.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Todd the T-1000, who comments on a new show running on Fox, saying, "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is the best thing to happen to the Terminator franchise since T2. After watching the third movie, which stank on ice, I didn't want to see any more but the new show makes up for that experience and then some. Summer Glau/Cameron is an awesome successor to the original "friendly" killer bot." Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.