By Ryland Walker Knight
If Unforgiven and Dead Man razed the Western, there have been few subsequent films to rebuild it. In fact, its best exemplar in ages was a television show. James Mangold's remake of 3:10 To Yuma won't be the genre's savior: it continues the trend of simply attempting to reestablish the tired clichés so deftly skewered by Clint Eastwood and Jim Jarmusch. Mangold's picture is so encumbered with rote elements that when they appear one after another over two not-quite-tedious hours, one is tempted to question whether (a) this is plain bad or (b) if, perhaps, this is a kind of genius parody.
I would like to believe it one or the other—that would be easier—but it is just enough of both to be watchable, if dismissible.
Mangold has made a career of earnest competency, not artistry, and his sure-handed non-style defines everything downright silly and sad about his newest picture: silly because, for all the guile and commitment of Yuma's actors, Ben Foster is the worthiest performer in a movie starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe (with Peter Fonda and Gretchen Mol around for some plot-device work); sad because the self-parody is not funny. This is not to say Bale and Crowe are "bad." Rather, they deliver the kinds of performances you would expect them to: committed and charming, serving the movie as best they know how. Bale's stubborn dedication (method?) helps us believe this sometimes-strapping movie star is an emasculated debtor unable to inspire his family; Crowe has a rogue's magnetic demeanor down to a science, and you know his smile is ingenuous from the get go.
The problem is that as soon as Crowe shows up on screen his entire improbable arc is plain to see, thanks to Mangold's heavy-handedness. In the first scene with Crowe (as villain Ben Wade), he sketches a perfect pencil line drawing of a black bird (a crow?). After the bird flies from its perch on a low branch, he pins his artwork in its place. This puzzles Ben Foster's second-in-command Charlie Prince, but it should tell you all you need to know. This man, Wade, creates things. He's a man of the world, of the sky as much as the earth. This man, in fact, sees a different world than his fellows. This man is not all bad. This man will have an epiphany.
This is potentially potent material, but the film's success (or, as I see it, failure) is dependent on the audience buying into its drama, not its morals, because Mangold is concerned, it would appear, chiefly with story. Unfortunately, this story's trajectory and resolution are all too safe, predictable, and implausible. And as with anything overtly contrived, story gets in the way. There needed to be more scenes elucidating the movie's themes visually rather than through blatant significations or Wade spouting off nonsense posing as themes posing as dialogue. This lack of subtlety, pushing story to the fore, is the chief problem in Mangold's work. Worse, it is all his all-surface films have to offer: even the "depths" are shallow.
Yet, try as this film may to muck things up, there is one great shot, at the end, of that eponymous train leaving the station. Its shadow passes across the face of Dan's son, William (Logan Lerman), until the last car leaves the frame—off screen right—and the setting sun hits the boy smack in the face while the empty space left by the train exposes a water tower opposite him. It's a rather simple metaphor, but because it is so simple in its aim—and because of the low angle looking up at the boy, his sunny face level with the water tower—it works: the family farm will see another day, and there will be water to help it prosper in the future. The film should have ended there. But Mangold, ever sincere, chooses to show the train leaving the frame in full, in its own shot, so you know for sure that it's gone. Were there more moments like that shadow swipe, Yuma might have packed more punch, or meant more. As is, the movie subordinates cinema to story, and its style never coheres beyond a dull color palate. If it weren't for the performances, there would not be much whatsoever to watch up there, just a dusty plain.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.