on January 31, 2009
The western is the 'genre that wouldn't die'. Every time it seems that nothing more can be said by a man in a cowboy hat, along comes a 'Dances With Wolves', an 'Unforgiven', or a 'Deadwood' to prove everybody wrong. This year brings two major westerns to the big screen: 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James. Both are A-list, straight up genre exercises that threaten to re-ignite the western as a pertinent American film milieu. Both will probably fail; and I say this without glee because I happen to love westerns.
3:10 To Yuma is a remake of a Glenn Ford film from about '57. I never saw the original, which means most people never saw it, which means it's a perfect film to remake. (Unlike many film geeks, I'm all for remaking flawed or forgotten films.) And this looks like homerun material right out of the gate. James Mangold, coming off a fine Johnny Cash bio seems poised for a top-notch crowd-pleaser, assembles a dream cast. Hell, any film starring Russell Crowe is worth seeing. But Russell Crowe and Christian Bale... holy crap! It's a must-see just to watch these guys share the screen. Put these two in a classic shoot-em-up, and how can you go wrong? Here's how.
Bale plays Dan Evans, a crippled, down-on-his-luck rancher, who volunteers, for pay, to help escort a captured gang leader, Ben Wade to a train that will take him to Yuma prison. Along for the ride is Dan's teenage son who loathes his father, and obviously admires the charismatic Wade. Dan's challenge is to deliver Wade alive, before Wade's gang, led by the surprisingly effective Ben Foster, catch up with them, rescue their beloved leader; and kill everybody else. During the perilous journey, Dan and Wade develop a strange connection; the two men seem to really understand one another, though Wade is obviously manipulating Dan all the way. This relationship, in fact, is the heart of the film. And watching Bale and Crowe play their scenes, one gets the feeling that you're watching two of the finest screen actors in the business; it's like listening to Miles Davis jam with John Coltrane. Pure joy! For the first two acts of Yuma, the interaction between these two guys is so great, it's well worth the price of admission. Then, it all collapses so spectacularly, that the whole thing just leaves a terrible taste in your mouth; like eating a delicious feast that gives you food poisoning.
What goes wrong?
Let me backtrack. All film genres go through evolution. The breakdown goes something like this: Adolescence (in the case of the Western let's site John Ford's Stagecoach, or Hawks' Red River), Adulthood (Winchester 73, Shane), Maturity (The Searchers, Liberty Valance), Experimentation (Leone's films and 'professional westerns'), and Revisionism (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, El Topo), and - it could be argued - Irrelevance (Young Guns). Once a genre goes through this evolution, a filmmaker is free to apply their genre film to any stage of that evolution. Clint Eastwood's career is a good example of this: his first Western, Hight Plains Drifter falls in the Experimental range; The Outlaw Josey Wales and Unforgiven are Mature, and Pale Rider is Adult. 3:10 To Yuma, as such, is an Adult Western and it never really pushes that boundary; never tries to press into a Mature stage and certainly not into the Experimental stage. And that's OK. In fact, it's good. But what happens at the end of the film simply abandons every genre convention along with the films own internal logic in favor of... well, frankly I'm not sure what. Throwing out genre tropes and conventions must serve a purpose. Here, it serves none; the twists and surprises ring hollow and result in nothing but disappointment.
The last 10 minutes of 3:10 To Yuma is absurd. The characters, so skillfully established in the first two acts, suddenly start behaving like some other guys. Wade becomes very noble; willing to risk his life for no good reason (when a simple shout to his cronies would resolve the whole dilemma). And Dan becomes downright suicidal. All of these changes are, tentatively explained with unconvincing bits of dialogue and minor revelations that barely make sense. On top of this mess Mangold throws in a big shoot-em-up chase scene that makes no sense physically or thematically; and finishes it all off with an even more ridiculous character turnaround coupled with the most pointless death of a main character I've seen in decades. Basically, a disaster of an ending that sours the artistry of what came before. It's hard to recall the last time I saw a film that so fundamentally shoots itself in the foot. A real shame.