3:10 to Yuma has two of the finest actors in recent memory, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale bring an intellectual sang froid and a brooding intensity to their respective roles, both delivering Oscar worthy performances. Sadly, this movie does not deserve lead performances of such caliber. Apparently, nobody showed up to work aside from Crowe and Bale as they are both hindered by a overbearing, shallow script and equally overbearing and shallow directing courtesy of James Mangold of Kate and Leopold fame.
Of course, genius does not come easy and it is unwise to expect it from 2nd rate Hollywood directors like Mangold. Christian Bale and Russell Crowe are clearly geniuses. Bale plays the role of Dan Evans, a struggling rancher with both shocking intensity and genuine warmth. Crowe plays Ben Wade, the notoriously successful criminal that Dan Evans must escort to the 3:10 train to Yuma prison to save his ranch and his family. Crowe is magnificent as he hints at a man who understands humanity perfectly, playing those around him perfectly to get what he wants, while being detached from petty human morals and values. Crowe’s performance, along with Daniel Day Lewis’ turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, combined with Ian McShane’s brilliant Al Swearengen in HBO’s Deadwood have created a new, thoroughly enthralling archetype, the brutal yet incredibly intelligent capitalistic Western anti hero.
Crowe and Bale dig into weightier themes than the rest of this movie has the audacity to tackle. Bale plays a man torn apart by the demands of society/morality and his love for his family/his simple way of life. Crowe’s Ben Wade is an almost god like figure, forever untouchable by mortals and law enforcement in particular, killing Indians, Pinkertons and as the audience discovers, whoever he damn well pleases with startling ease. He delivers Biblical proverbs and has a pistol called the hand of god, symbols that one should not miss. Crowe forges a tentative bond with Bale’s Evans, taking pity on a desperate man, recognizing that they are both shaped by pasts they’re trying to escape. It is nearly impossible not to see that this is very good acting.
Now that I have heaped much deserved praise on Bale and Crowe, I must now point out what separates this merely good movie from being a great movie. First, the supporting cast is just north of mediocre. I love Alan Tudyk just as much, if not more than the next guy. I adored his charm in both Firefly and Knocked Up. Casting him as a supposedly heartbreakingly earnest Doctor, however, was a terrible decision as Tudyk botches the one scene in the movie where he is required to actually act. Every single time Tudyk opens his mouth and attempts to inhabit a character so clearly wrong for him, one cannot help but wish Philip Seymour Hoffman was given the part.
The soundtrack is mediocre and serviceable. It simply lacks the inspiration of the classic soundtracks of the spaghetti western era. 3:10 to Yuma’s final, fatal flaw is the mise en scene or lack thereof. James Mangold is like the soundtrack, mediocre and serviceable. I could not help but wish Robert Zemeckis was given the reins to 3:10 to Yuma along with the Assassination of Jesse James. In fact, Mangold is probably the only thing stopping 3:10 to Yuma from riding on the bravura acting by Crowe and Bale to greatness.
Mangold’s cinematography expresses neither the haunting freedom nor the seething brutality of the west. It seems almost as if Crowe and Bale were told they were making a great movie and Mangold showed up to film a forgettable action movie, focused more on guns than characterization. I have nothing against Mangold personally. He helmed Walk the Line well enough and knew how to use Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar winning performance to create the definitive portrait of Johnny Cash’s life. Still, as a lover of film, it upsets me that the great movie hidden inside 3:10 to Yuma must be buried by a merely mediocre director, poor supporting actors and an entirely forgettable soundtrack.
Onwards to totally unrelated notes. It is okay to package a great movie inside the guise of a typical western but when the guise becomes the movie itself, failure results. Next up is We Own the Night once it hits DVDs because it too, attempts to make a great movie wrapped in genre conventions. Is Christian Bale the next Russell Crowe? It sure seems like it, they’ve both managed the near impossible balance of the artistic versus the commercial. I really would recommend this film though, I’m sure the average viewer will not mind the lack of auteurism and just enjoy the damn thing.