A contemporary remake of a low-rent 1957 B-western, that is positively resistant to subtext.
So, the western is back. Yay! And no doubt media theorists, academics and daddy’s boy columnists are already reaching for their polemical six-shooters and giddily describing how the likes of 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls and The Assassination of Jesse James represent nothing less than the re-imagining of the American psyche in the face of Bush-era aggression, paranoia and moral turpitude. And yet, you look at 3:10 to Yuma, you look closely, and it’s just not there.
For here is a movie, a contemporary remake of a low-rent 1957 B-western, that is positively resistant to subtext. It follows the fortunes of one-legged farmer and Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale) as he attempts, with the aid of a dwindling posse, to bring notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the frontier town of Contention, in order to catch the titular prison train.
Along the way, Evans repels Apache attacks, corrupt railroaders and the inexorable pursuit of Wade’s increasingly dangerous gang (led by a deliciously seedy Ben Foster). The movie builds to an epiphany of sorts, with the emasculated Evans rediscovering his inner gunslinger, and the homicidal Wade nurturing his hitherto hidden morality.
And that’s about it. No clunky dialogue about the nature of war. No speeches about the essence of America, and how ‘this country’ will one day be great (for that you need to rent The Searchers). Instead, it’s just two men on horseback, chasing the shit out of each other across the desert. And that, pilgrim, is part of the movie’s sneaky and seductive appeal.
For it’s a film that has an unusually high regard for the fundamentals of storytelling, thanks to some muscular direction from James Mangold (Walk the Line), a tight Elmore Leonard short story source, and two typically empathetic turns from heavyweights Bale and Crowe, with the former employing his now infamous hollow-cheeked stare to devastating effect. When he pleads with wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) in the movie’s cri de coeur, "I been standing on one leg for three goddamn years, waiting for God to do me a favour, and he ain’t listening!" you will believe him.
And yes, of course, you could read lots into Bale’s leg injury (Iraqi landmine, anyone?), or into the scene where Wade is tortured by psychopathic gang masters (Abu Ghraib?). But really, you could also get a life.
A remake of a slightly boring 1950s western? Not sure.
Bale! Crowe! Guns! Big guns! Shooting! More shooting! And emotional epiphanies!
They don’t make them like that anymore. But, hang on, they just did!