QUADRIVIUM

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Smash Cut – 3:10 to Yuma

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dvd310toyuma.jpgThe Western has become the mythic universe of American cinema, akin to Frodo’s Middle-earth or Lucas’s galaxy far, far away. Unfortunately, it’s a genre that’s fallen into cliché, thanks to the generous contribution of Sergio Leone’s (and others’) dusty and sometimes brilliant visual stylings. Some of these films do manage to transcend the genre, though, and to this short canon, James Mangold’s vision of Elmore Leonard’s 3:10 to Yuma makes a generous addition.

Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Christian Bale) tends a failing Arizona ranch, persecuted by a wealthy railroad owner from whom he borrowed money to stay afloat. Nearby, the wanted criminal Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) stages an audacious robbery of a caravan carrying a deposit to the local bank—an operation involving Evans’s cattle, set loose by the railway owner’s goons. When Wade is captured, Evans volunteers to help escort the wanted man to the 3:10 train to Yuma Prison.

Other than one or two instances of predictability (one unfortunate character catches a bullet about as unexpected as Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the dark side), Mangold has crafted a fine character drama for Crowe and Bale to exercise their caliber. Evans limps along from a wounded soul as much as a wounded leg. He embodies Thoreau’s assertion that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and his motives run far deeper than a need for money. He craves to appease his eldest son’s scorn and restore his wife’s wilting respect. Counter to this is Wade, brutal and cunning, dangerous even with his wrists bound. Both possess an unyielding devotion to their convictions.

As the company of men make their way to Contention (an apt name, considering the film’s climax) where they’ll meet the train, Wade focuses his shrewd guile on Evans, chipping away at the vet’s tired fortitude. Both bear scars that have led them to this place, and one will eventually break—it’s only a question of when.

As a western, Yuma banks on the established trends of its genre, but elevates them as well. The first act’s stagecoach robbery contains some notable surprises, including Peter Fonda’s wonderful turn as a ruthless old bounty hunter. Wade’s gang of outlaws put to ruin any expectations, particularly his number one gun, Charles Prince (Ben Foster), an eager villain as creative as he is cruel.

Mangold shoots the picture without any intention of mimicking Leone’s visuals. He instead focuses more on the lighting, which especially lends a washed desert palette to the night scenes around the fire. Marco Beltrami’s score completes the atmosphere, a near flawless iteration that is both old and new.

The unexpected themes of legacy and honor weave into the film’s final act, rising to a provocative climax rich in the kind of content that evokes multiple layers of insight; an effect that lingers long after the credit roll. To call it morally ambiguous misses the deeper matters Mangold wishes to leave the audience to consider, matters such as identity and sonship. And and the name a father passes on to his son.

(photo courtesy: LionsGate)

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Written by taj

February 2, 2008 at 10:46 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Ah, but without Sergio Leone, there’d be no Dark Tower. Not that you have any idea what you’re missing.

    Andrew

    February 2, 2008 at 11:10 pm

  2. Ahh, good retort. 😉 You’re right, Leone’s visuals work well with King’s GUNSLINGER narrative. I just have to hunker down and finish the series.

    Plus, don’t get me wrong, I love Leone’s work. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY remains one of the best westerns ever made.

    taj

    February 2, 2008 at 11:35 pm


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