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3:10 to Yuma (2007)

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February 5, 2008

As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, early each year I receive from some studies DVDs of movies nominated for SAG awards; they're hoping I watch the movie and vote for it.  (Used to be I, with my partner, could get in free to cinemas to see nominated movies, but over the years that perk has disappeared.)  The savings on movie tickets provided by the DVDs doesn’t offset the cost of my SAG dues (especially since I’ve usually paid to see some of the movies already), which I keep up for no good reason; but it feels as though I’m getting something in return.

This year, one of the DVDs was 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe (as Ben Wade, a gang leader) and Christian Bale (Dan Evans, a rancher and sharpshooter in debt to local, thuggish citizens) in the lead roles.  I’m curious why the film got so much hype.  Certainly the acting and photography are fine, but the plot is often silly.  While the film has some gritty and disturbingly ruthless scenes (21st century measures of cinematic greatness?), it is a throwback to westerns with which I grew up (and on which I doted) in the '50s and before—and I don’t mean that in a nostalgic, approving way.  For neither better nor worse, the film has little blood despite considerable violence, the way gangster movies and war movies and westerns used to pretend that killing was neat and bloodless.  (I should note that I don’t take well to the more modern trend towards graphic violence, though I recognize that it is not always gratuitous.)  There is plenty of killing, especially by one particularly psychopathic comrade of Ben’s, Charlie Prince (played by Ben Foster).

Early in the film, Ben is captured by law enforcement types because, after tricking local law enforcement to leave town so he can rip off town businesses, he lingers in a whorehouse in mutually happy and more-or-less tender sexual union with a sex worker whom he has sort of known in the past.  (This is what has come to pass for a romantic subplot, I suppose.)  To pay off his debts, Dan agrees to join several others to transport Ben a few days’ ride to a prison train that will stop at the town of Contention (!)—the 3:10 to Yuma (which, in one of the scattered clever bits in the film, turns out to be a bit late).  Along the way, Ben escapes a couple of times and is re-captured. Dan’s angry 14-year-old son disobeys his father and follows the group so that at one point (quelle surprise!) he is able to save its members when Ben has gotten the drop on them.  We are supposed to admire the son’s rebellious behavior, though not the reasons he is angry.  One by one, nearly the entire escort gets killed off, starting with one of the town thugs who helped burn down Dan’s barn at the start of the film.  For reasons never fully explained, Ben has taken a liking to Dan—so much so that at the climax of the film he performs a deed that seems thoroughly out of character, albeit that the film has gradually prepared us not to be very surprised at what happens. 

There are confusing gunfights.  One is at night, another throwback to the 50s’ westerns I remember from childhood with, as my father, using a Mad magazine term, dubbed it, “another furshlugginer night scene” in which it was impossible to make out much of the action; presumably in this re-make the effect is supposed to be artistic (for example, here and there flashes of light from gunfire illuminate the scene for a second or so), but if so the script writers and/or director (James Mangold) need to work harder at distinguishing between art and obfuscation.

The most ridiculous moments are when the people we are rooting for (not always the best guys) are managing to evade gunfire from worse guys who at any other time could close their eyes, spin around several times, and without pausing shoot a hole through a penny at a thousand yards.  The carnage becomes especially extensive because the psychotic Charlie Prince, in another clever script moment, offers $200 (the same payment Dan is supposed to get if he delivers Ben to the train) to Contention townfolk for each member they kill of Ben’s remaining escort.  We are creating here that part of classical tragedy which treats "ordinary" people as disposable.  We know nothing about the townspeople other than the crude image they present, we are invited to project unworthy character traits onto them, and when they are mown down we give no thought to them as dying human beings.  I experienced them as kin to australopithicenes, grunting in excitement at the prospect of an easy $200 and able to handle firearms with so little proficiency that one wonders why they keep pressing forward, lemming-like, before Dan's sure fire (aided no end by his invisible cornucopia of ammunition in weapons that never seem to need reloading).

Not long after the $200 bounty offer, we become spectators to an American western version of popular kung-fu movie battles of recent years, just as frenetic and just as cartoonish.  Without giving much more away, I’ll note that by the end of the movie we are witnessing a state of affairs not unlike the end of Hamlet but with no Fortinbras to pick up the pieces.

My opening bemusement at why this film has been hyped should probably be shifted to asking what need(s) the plot devices fulfill in today’s audiences to earn the movie wide critical and audience praise.

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