Fashioned as a return to old school Westerns of the 50s, 3:10 to Yuma should nonetheless satisfy modern audiences unschooled in the structure and composition of those films. Its real strength lies in its leading men, however, whose duel is something to behold.
Waking one night to find his barn being set alight by the hired thugs of a man he owes money, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) realises he has reached a crisis point – his family, in particular his wife and eldest son William (Logan Lerman), have lost respect for him and with his water supply cut off and the barn containing his last remaining feed alight, he is likely to lose his cattle and ranch as well. As they round up the herd the following morning, Dan, William and youngest son Mark (Ben Petry) happen across the ambush of a stagecoach by the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his gang. What follows often seems outside the control of either man, as Evans agrees to convey Wade to Contention to meet the 3:10 train to Yuma prison for a price, and Wade’s gang attempts to effect his release.
Both Bale and Crowe have featured in excellent films recently released in Australia (Rescue Dawn and American Gangster respectively), and 3:10 to Yuma is another example of their talents. Crowe gets the flashier role, with Wade a skilled killer and vicious leader of evil men, inspiring loyalty from his crew in spite of his tendency to sketch birds and quote the Bible. Wade is charming and malicious, and Crowe is the perfect fit for the role. Alongside him, Bale is required to build his hero slowly, allowing his intensity to overflow only late in the piece. Their shared scenes are the best of the film, with the wait for the train in Contention particularly standing out. Testing each other with offer and counter offer, they share stories of themselves and build a bond that neither desires, which will lead each of them to behave in unexpected ways. The psychological duel between good and bad man is a frequent structural component in film scripts, yet it is rarely so well done as here.
The supporting cast is varied, with Peter Fonda playing a bounty hunter with whom Wade has previously crossed paths, and Alan Tudyk the Bisbee veterinarian who becomes an unlikely hero. The standout, however, is Ben Foster as Wade’s right-hand man Charlie Prince. Foster imbues Prince with a sense of moral vacuity that may have been more commented upon in awards discussions were it not for the incredible turn of Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Although substantially longer than the first screen version of the Elmore Leonard short story, the pacing of the narrative feels just right with action sequences scattered amongst the more contemplative scenes. Set design, costumes and cinematography combine to evoke the 19th-century setting with aplomb, providing an easy familiarity for those for whom 3:10 to Yuma is not their first Western. James Mangold’s direction is skilful, providing further evidence he may be one to watch after his wonderful Walk the Line.
While it isn’t perfect, the combination of the performances of Bale, Crowe and Foster and the dexterity with which the relationship between Evans and Wade is allowed to develop means that 3:10 to Yuma works very effectively indeed.Rating: