Now I know what it is like to be a Red Sox fan.
Not the insight I was expecting after seeing “3:10 to Yuma,” the new western from director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”). And yet the experience of having such a wonderfully nuanced movie crumble at the moment of climax has brought me as close as I ever want to get to the serial agonies of Boston fans.
The movie features Russell Crowe as Ben Wade, the leader of a murderous band of robbers who is captured shortly after his spectacular ambush of an armored stagecoach loaded with Pinkerton detectives and cash. The South-Pacific Railroad wants him delivered to the federal penitentiary in Yuma, where he will be tried and hanged for robbery. Wade’s captors and our protagonist, Dan Evans, a debt/doubt-ridden rancher played by Christian Bale, must escort him to the 3:10 prison train from the town of Contention while pursued by the remainder of Wade’s gang.
For a generation whose image of a man headed west to win his fortune refers more to the pre-9/11 dot-com boom than the American frontier, the western has faded from its once-exalted place in the American cultural ritual. Yet while “3:10 to Yuma” does not try to revive the mythic stature of the old West, it breathes life into the clichés that define the genre. Mangold keeps the movie intimate, focusing on the characters and their motivations and finding complexity in the classic archetypes of Bale’s hardworking rancher and Crowe’s Hobbesian villain.
Crowe’s interpretation of the sociopathic Wade is one of the most compelling parts of film. With a penchant for drawing and quoting the Bible by chapter and verse, Wade seems more gentleman than outlaw. He does not shrink from the violence of his crimes, though there are hints of introspection that falls far short of regret. Wade’s charming demeanor is thoroughly convincing, and it seduces not only the local barmaid but Evans’ adolescent son as well. When Wade’s veneer does crack, however, his savagery is palpable.
Cruel as Wade is, he is far outstripped by the sadism of his gang and in particular his right hand man Charlie Prince, played by Ben Foster (of “Six Feet Under” and “X-Men: Last Stand”). Foster imbues Prince with a riveting blend of brutality and an almost childish devotion to Wade, elevating a minor role to the standout performance of the movie.
Ultimately, “3:10 to Yuma” belongs to Evans. The one-footed civil war veteran failing to carve out an honest living for his wife and two sons finds a plethora of reasons to undertake the perilous trip to Contention. Beaten down by life, impotent to protect his farm and his family from the world and berated by an eldest son who makes no efforts to conceal his disappointment in his father, Evans’ participation in the escort becomes about far more than the $200 offered by the railroad. His decision to persevere even as death and disillusionment whittle away his companions becomes the central drama of the film.
When Prince and the rest of the gang finally trap Wade and Evans in a hotel a short distance from the train station, a final glorious showdown is inevitable. The genre demands this most holy of clichés. The entire movie has crescendoed to this moment. Then, in one fell swoop, it disintegrates. In one terrible moment, the movie discards everything that has made it so enjoyable and drags its mangled corpse up and down the aisles of the theater. Where once there was nuance and the desire to find believability in an overblown genre, there is only nonsense. It is a heartbreaking moment.
And so, we discover at the end, that Mangold has not made a western, but a tragedy.
For 110 minutes, “3:10 to Yuma” offers its audience a superb movie-going experience, replete with well-realized characters, the peculiar moralities of the Wild West and furious gunplay. It’s a real shame that the movie lasts for 117 minutes.