As has been written numerous times before regarding the subject, the modern western seems to be dead. Given that there have been very few westerns over the last few decades, one might venture to guess that Hollywood has just lost faith in westerns in general.
But my personal philosophy is that if you can tell a good story, regardless of the genre, then that film deserves to be made. Fortunately, despite my predilection against westerns as a whole, 3:10 To Yuma is an incredibly well made movie that showcases even more evidence that Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are some of the finest actors around.
The plot of the movie as it exists is rather simple. Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is suffering through a harrowing drought on his farm. Since he cannot farm his own land, he has nothing to see to make the payments on his barn. If things don't change soon, then Dan and his wife and two children will be forced off their farm and into poverty. When the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, Dan volunteers to help escort Wade to a neighboring train station for $200 to help pay the bills. The one catch is that Wade's psychotic gang led by Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is on their trail and will certainly not hesitate to kill and maim every person in the party.
Yet, this movie is less about the plot and more about the characters being able to explore what it means to survive in this world. Evans is a man who is beaten and broken and has something to prove. His son looks at him like he's a joke since he cannot even seem to provide for his family. His wife has been rather distant towards him lately. On top of all that, he has one wooden leg from a Civil War injury. Despite the danger, this is all that Dan can do to provide for himself and for his family. So he goes on the journey. Bale plays Dan with such quiet desperation that it is easy to feel for the situation in which he resides.
On the other hand, Ben Wade is a killer. He takes what he wants, and has no problem killing anyone who gets in his way. Yet, this is not with malicious intent, no. These people just happen to be between him and what he wants, so he takes care of the situation. Wade recognizes that no one is out there to do him any favors and that everyone is out for themselves, therefore he feels that he is not going to do any favors for anyone else, and just kill them.
This leads to the juxtaposition of the two men in a very interesting situation. The two of them are able to communicate and slowly begin to understand one another. They may not completely respect what the other is doing, but at least they being to have some understanding of it. This, ultimately, is why the film works as well as it does. The fact that these two archetypal men are given such layers of complexity in their characters speaks volumes about the quality of the film. Going in, one might think that Bale is the good guy and Crowe is the bad guy, but to come in with that assumption would be completely incorrect. No, these are characters with their own motivations that go beyond "I like to kill" or "I'm the hero." Gone is the idea that the Old West was so black and white and people now show up in many more shades of gray. That isn't to say that one cannot understand who is good or who is bad, but there is a deeper exploration of those themes that allows the viewer to contemplate the ramifications of the characters' actions and their reasons for ending up in the situations in which they ended up.
Yet, Bale and Crowe aren't the only strong actors in this movie. On the contrary, the supporting cast is filled out with a number of excellent actors, both young and old. Peter Fonda shows up as a Pinkerton agent named Byron McElroy who may be fighting for the side of the good but can be a bit of a ruthless man himself. This exploration of good vs. evil when coupled with Wade offers an interesting insight into the character of Wade himself.
Alan Tudyk is also excellent as the reluctant veterinarian Doc Potter who is forced on the trip in an attempt to make sure that McElroy does not suffer from his recently acquired gunshot wound. Despite his complete inability with a firearm, he moves on the journey with the rest, accepting the fate that stands before him.
This truly is one of the best character pieces I have seen in a long while. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line, Copland) crafts an excellent picture that rises above the stigma of a Western and can be placed in the same category as such westerns as "Unforgiven" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." Yet, it's not all character work. The action is also rather brutal and well-shot. The numerous gunfights throughout the movie are engaging and add to the intensity of the story. Even if you are not even interested in the subtleties of the actors, then I could recommend it based on the action alone. But when the action means something and this is recognized, then it amps things to a whole new level. The last scenes in particular are the ultimate culmination of everything that came before it. There is a new understanding for the characters and one that leads to an incredibly satisfying emotional conclusion.