Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Flashback Review: Film: 3:10 to Yuma

Original Post Date: 9/9/07

Considering my past posts, this particular review may seem beside the point. But instead, I would hazard a guess that it could be considered relevant--and moreso when it comes to the film industry and what it chooses to make, and what overall themes damned good filmmakers--and actors--most often choose.

In this case, I just saw James Mangold's latest (the director responsible for Walk the Line, the nuanced biopic about Johnny and June Carter Cash), 3:10 to Yuma, starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, and Ben Foster. This is definitely a film about the shades of gray found in the continuum between right and wrong--and where a man's sense of decency can either be corrupted or supported by the choices he chooses to make, including when faced with pride and/or desperation.

Most Westerns have been invariably set up as a morality tale--in rugged, often desperate circumstances, you choose between right and wrong--you're either a hero, a bystander, or an outlaw. Some event has set the hero and villain both on their course toward their ultimate role in the tale--and it's not hard to spot which is which.

This is a film which is not so different on its face. Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is an outlaw. He's a thief, a murderer, and the leader of a group of outlaws who follow his every order, for he is the best in the business, and between being one of the quickest draws we imagine one has ever seen, also has the loyalty of his men and the intelligence which makes it inadvisable to cross him. Crowe as Wade is a nefarious, charming, bible-quoting scene-stealer, and as his second in command, Ben Foster plays Charlie as an equally brutal character sociopathic enough to have taken over, if he weren't apparently so rapt with an almost loving hero-worship. Between the two, it would seem no one has a chance--moreso with the group of nameless thugs who seem to be primarily there as mercenaries, bolstering the force--and number--of outlaws. At this point, Wade and Charlie almost seem to look upon any of their opponents with a sense of pity, and Wade, with a wry chuckle and a raised-eyebrow shake of the head, as though anyone unwise enough to come against him has it coming.

Countering this force of veritable "badmen" are Peter Fonda and Christian Bale. Peter Fonda has been gaining a resurgence over these last years--shaky in Ghost Rider, here, he has found his calling as a character actor, and being the son of Henry Fonda, it's no surprise. It would almost seem to be in the blood. The crags in his face, the gray hair, leathery skin and crystalline blue eyes are at home in the dry, atmospheric red rock of Arizona. Hired to protect the money being transferred by the railroad from one town to another--particularly from men like Wade--he and Wade are natural antagonists, each tough and stubborn, as well as prone to varying pronouncements, insults, and one-liners which are as dry as the earth between the two Arizona towns in the film, Bisbee and Contention.

Christian Bale once again plays a more than convincing American--and again, one with a mind as well as a darker past. Like Crowe, Bale has the talent to depict multiple emotions at once, as though no matter how hard one were to try, no one would ever be able to decipher the myriad thoughts which seem to be visibly flowing through his mind from one moment to the next. As Dan Evans, he is a Civil War veteran, a sharpshooter who lost his leg in the war, and having moved west for the drier climes for the sake of his younger son (suffering from what then would have been called "consumption"), is trying his damnedest to make a go of it as a rancher, only to be faced with losing his ranch if he can't come up with enough money to cover his note within days. If he can't, the note-holder, who was kind enough to burn his barn as a reminder, will sell his land to the railroads for a profit. Evans is a man who is facing the threat of losing what matters most--not just his land and his prospective livelihood, but the respect of his wife and his sons, who at this point have begun not to trust him. It's an anguish which Bale holds in, seen in his eyes, but still held back just enough by a proud stoicism, as though the only thing he can do at this point is force himself onward, when lesser men would have given in. He refuses to be one of those men. Who, then, would his sons remember, and what would they have learned to see him surrender?

The film, then, is less a battle between the outlaws and the "good guys"--if in any film these days any man can be seen as such (even Peter Fonda's character is lambasted by Wade for killing Apache women and children, as though such actions could ever be considered righteous), than a character study between, ultimately, two men--Wade and Evans, and what makes a man good, especially in a film where actions, and the reasons behind them, indeed determine character. Wade and Evans throughout the film build a grudging admiration for one another--Wade has more freedom to admire Evans--Wade as an outlaw is already at an advantage, as he already knows himself to be the "bad guy," so what does it cost him to admire a good man? Evans, in contrast, begins with an almost emotionless contempt, and only at the end does it warm--however slightly--to a grudging respect for Wade--which to him is less important than getting him on the train, the 3:10 to Yuma prison, which will afford him the ability to save his ranch. That's his objective--there's too much at stake to think about anything else--and nothing is going to keep him from damned well doing it, come hell or high water. Not even any inducements Wade might finally offer him to look the other way as he escapes. In a reality in which you're about to lose everything--the one thing you hold onto is the task you've taken on. Nothing else is important. The willingness to complete that action, whatever the cost, is the only thing you have left.

Bale makes this a viable reality for Evans--and Crowe makes a good potential foil, then ally, as he's taken by Evans' single-mindedness, and for what he soon realizes are unassailable reasons. Given the same circumstances, Wade might have done the same thing. But as his circumstances are different, and as he sees life through a famous outlaw's lens of perception--enough to make his view of good and evil somewhat relative--all he can do is take on the role almost as observer to this task. It seems almost inevitable that Wade will one way or another find his way out of this--even if he is put on the train--so why not take advantage of his circumstance and challenge Evans' mettle. A great foil doesn't just shoot his gun--he can get inside the psyche of his opponent and figure out what makes him tick. Then it's just a matter of time before an opportunity will present itself, and he can manipulate such men to do the dirty work for him, or otherwise adeptly sidestep any feeble attempt to contain him. On some level, it seems Wade is almost pleased he has a real opponent--someone whose depth of commitment to his task--and again for reasons Wade himself respects--makes him have the very kind of rare character Wade almost hates to destroy. In a world where men seem unfailingly predictable--they're either too lily-livered to ultimately stand up to a fight--or they otherwise are greedy enough to fold at the right price--here is one man who won't succumb to inducement. Even Peter Fonda's character, McElroy, has become "boring," according to Wade--after enough years of the same damned contemptuous presence--always with the same damned commentary--it's about time someone different comes along who can stand up to him. That presents an entertaining challenge, once the irritation has worn off.

With a simple plot, a film like this needed actors like Crowe and Bale to make this as much of a rare pleasure to see as it was. There's nothing like seeing two incredibly nuanced actors up against one another--and each took the bit if not in his teeth than with one hell of a wry and knowing toss of the head. And once again, I have to say, there is no smarter actor than Russell Crowe. The combination of intelligence and instinct was at its peak, and moreso when able to take a character which could have been the usual flat, brusque depiction of an outlaw and make him into a thinking man. Not only that, but a charmer. And Bale, whose intensity is one of his hallmarks, has chosen the kind of character in which his own intelligence is less important--however present--than it is an afterthought. Even smart men sometimes have to choose survival--and Evans could give a damn about anything but saving his ranch--and making sure his wife and boys survive.

In an industry where studios are more and more pandering to what they believe to be the lowest common denominator among audiences--and sure as hell underestimating their intelligence--films like this give all of us who love the medium hope when it comes to what is being chosen to finance, and hopefully it's a trend about to make a punctuated resurgence. What could have been a B-list Western if it were in anyone else's hands, instead was thankfully taken on by a director like Mangold, and was given enough substance to attract actors like Crowe and Bale. Had this been made by the major studios instead of made by smaller production companies and distributed by LionsGate, I can only imagine the "notes" Mangold would have received from production executives who would have insisted upon dumbing down the dialogue and cutting character development in favor of a film top-heavy with violence to the point--if you'll forgive the pun--of overkill. I don't mind violence in these cases--hell this is a Western--but this was one of those films which balanced both beautifully. Had any such production executive screwed with it, I could have imagined sitting here writing that it was too bad Crowe and Bale's talents were wasted.

And in terms of why this is relevant here--instead of the usual films these days where technology, slick production, pithy one-liners, and new up-and-comers are hired for iconic roles which may very well be beyond their scope as actors--this proves that it takes men of substance to show the more relevant and important shades of gray which make up a substantive human being--and in this case, even an outlaw. In a Western, what is an outlaw but a man or woman with a certain past who chooses badly in terms of conscience--knowing damn well right from wrong? Indeed, in our present world, that definition is different depending upon where you're standing. Hero and outlaw are interchangeable, depending upon which side of a border, who is a champion for what group of people, and what actions are seen to constitute bravery. Right and wrong, apparently, have no meaning, as long as you have an arguable justification. And character is something rarely found, except in rare cases that cause us to lament the past.

In this film, character is palpable. In the end, even the outlaw found reason to exhibit some kind of honor, when faced with a good man who was doing something almost impossible, but for the right reasons. A boy who had no respect for his father found reason to love him in the end. Goes to show--you don't have to be a milquetoast to show substance. As a film, you can be gritty, use rough language, even show violence in context and both give substance and still entertain. I'm less entertained by high-tech light shows with wafer-thin characterizations than low-tech films with proverbial meat on their bones, which deserve the acclaim every time. And this was indeed one of those cases.

On the human front--I'll get to that again in other ways another time. It's good enough to sometimes just see something good, and be thankful, even in the realm of entertainment, there is good to see.

No comments: