Man, according to westerns, the railroads were history's greatest monster. Sure, they brought progress and prosperity to the frontier, but evidently they displaced roughly 40 billion innocent freesteaders along the way. The railroaders appear to have needed so much land it's a wonder the continent's not a solid mat of iron between the Panama Canal and the Arctic Circle.
In "3:10 to Yuma," the railroad's hassling Christian Bale, the latest individual seeking his own way in a world of crooks on both sides of the law. After the railroad's agents burn down his barn with all his cattle feed in the midst of a drought, it looks like he and his family might have to pack it in.
Opportunity comes in the form of bandit Russell Crowe, who gets captured after knocking off the railroad's payroll wagon. With the rest of Crowe's gang lurking in the area, led for the moment by the wrathful Ben Foster, Bale hires himself out for $200 to help escort Crowe to the nearest train station so he can be carted off to civilization and properly hanged.
Not exactly an easy task, as it turns out. Crowe's as dangerous with his words as he is with his hands, which are lethal even when cuffed. They're pursued all the way by Foster and his men, and they find no help along the way, even from their fellow railroad men. If they're going to make it to that train station, they're going to have depend on their own strength to get the job done.
I don't know why so few westerns are made these days. When they're done well, they're built for hardboiled performances, there are lots of guns, and when you're dealing with a bunch of people living in semi-lawlessness in a hostile land, there's all kinds of room for insight into the nature of man. Heck, if all they do right is the guns part, there's no reason to make another "Die Hard" over a western.
Especially when, like "3:10 to Yuma," they make good use of all those things. The performances are pretty much knockouts (I think that's an industry term for "great"), starting with Crowe, who brings so much charisma to the role it's easy to forget he's a murderer, and Bale, an understated man who can't seem to decide whether to knuckle under to the forces around him or make a stand and risk it all. Crowe only speaks to throw other men off balance, and Bale doesn't speak much at all, but they find common ground in a world ruled by common thugs.
And then there's Ben Foster.
In "Six Feet Under," Foster played a neurotic art student who couldn't keep hold of a girlfriend. In "X-Men 3," he played a cuddly angel who just wanted to fly. If his character in "3:10 to Yuma" heard me say that angel stuff, though, he would gun me down where I stood, and he would do it with such raw rage I would be too busy thinking about how cool he is to realize I'd just been shot to death.
The man needs some more big parts, stat. And whoever cast him needs a raise. Foster's brought an intensity to all his roles, but he's never been able to cut loose like he does here. I don't think shooting whomever you please is a very nice thing to do, but with about five more minutes of screen time Foster would've had me believing me it's a fine alternative to living a moral life.
Then again, if this movie's got it right, most peoples' morals aren't worth much more than lip service against the power of money. "3:10 to Yuma's" a throwback to America's old noirs and westerns, and for the most part it's so convincingly skeptical and fatalistic about how cheaply men can be bought that its final redemption is a little too much to swallow. Somehow, the nobility the ending's going for isn't quite as believable as the colder truths it's been working over to that point.
It almost earns that ending, though, and shooting high and falling short is a small quibble next to such good performances and the direction of James Mangold, which lacks some of the personality of the best westerns but has enough smart action and stark suspense to keep you hooked. If we're lucky, its success will remind a few other filmmakers why these used to be so popular.