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How the West Was Undone

'3:10 to Yuma' mans up.

Dorothy Woodend 14 Sep

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee.

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Crowe: Plays it rough.

Nothing like a good old fashioned man-on-man love story to warm your heart, especially if it stars Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

3:10 to Yuma, director James Mangold's new duster features the toothsome duo, plus a bevy of time-tested conventions -- a white hat, a black hat, a good little woman, couple of towheaded kids, and a few unlikely twists to boot. Oh, yes, it has boots, too.

There is something comforting about Westerns, maybe because the rules are so well established. The trick, like old any old warhorse, is all in the interpretation. Mangold plays it pretty straight, but he lets his two virtuoso leads (tenor and baritone) make beautiful music together. They're a good pair -- Bale, angular and lean as a beaten dog, and Crowe, heavy and solid, but prone to sudden shocking acts of violence.

Let me pause here a moment to wax rhapsodic about Mr. Crowe. Oh, Russell, you might be a big wanker in real life, but I do so love it when you play it rough. Although he's been using the same tricks since he roared to stardom in Romper Stomper (1992), the man has earned his chops; he exudes an aura of menace, like the reek of testosterone and gunpowder that makes for compelling viewing. Anyway, enough school girl gushing, on to the film.

Cowed, not broken

In Yuma, a remake of a 1957 film of the same title, Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a crippled Arizona rancher, with a sick kid, a sullen teenager, a sad wife, and a heaping load of debt. The railroad is on its way, and his land is worth more with Dan and his family off it, than on it. A local bigwig pays his men to burn the family off their land. The only thing Dan has left is his integrity and even that's starting to wobble a little. One day while rounding up his cows, Dan and his boys stumble onto Ben Wade and his gang, who are busy robbing a stagecoach. When Wade makes use of Dan's herd to create a wall of cattle that stops the coach in its tracks, the two men take stock of each other. Immediately, you know their fates are bound up together. The rest of the story is their gradual recognition of what they have in common.

After robbing the coach (their twenty-second such crime) Wade and his boys head into town for a little R & R. The boss heads upstairs with a saloon gal and his gang make themselves scarce. Meanwhile, the sheriff's men are busy combing the place for the infamous outlaw. It's Dan who lulls Wade long enough for the shackles to be clapped on. A ramshackle posse including a bounty hunter (an exceptionally leathery Peter Fonda) is assembled. Dan, for the promise of $200, also signs on, agreeing to escort Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will be shipped off to face the government hangman.

Therein begins one long extended chase sequence, interrupted by set pieces much like arias, in which each character can demonstrate their trills and high notes. They don't call them horse operas for nothing. A particularly fine performance is offered when Wade is stashed at Dan's house, in order to draw off the outlaw's gang. At dinner, Wade immediately senses the complexities of Dan's family situation. Using his deep bass rumble, he draws out each of the family's desires and insecurities, like he's calming spooked animals. Before long, Dan's wife Alice is looking a little flustered, and his teenage son is totally smitten.

Western orbit

Meanwhile, Wade's gang has cottoned on to the ruse, and is heading after their boss like God's vengeance. Like most Westerns, this is a man-only show, the women are strictly marginal, and as soon as the film can push them out of the way, it does so. Who needs women anyway, when you have horses and guns?

The Western seems to stage a reappearance every few years, especially during periods of social chaos when a return to simpler days starts to look mighty appealing. To his credit, Mangold makes the struggle between good and evil a fair fight. In this, Crowe and Bale are magnificent to watch, mano-a-mano, as it were, but they have the show stolen right from under them by the menacing grace of Ben Foster who plays Wade's right hand man Charlie Prince.

Dressed in a cowpoke fetish skintight leather jacket, Foster is a natural born psychopath, as easy with killing as he is with breathing. Whenever Foster appears, with his bright blue eyes brimming with glee and malice, he recalls bad boys of yore -- Lee Marvin, Jack Palance, James Coburn, even Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West) who lit up the screen with their glittering malignity.

As the group makes its way across the hostile landscape, the men ride, shoot, and occasionally blow things up, but on the inside a very different struggle is slowly emerging. As Wade tries to convince Dan to let him go, he doesn't notice that he in turn is being influenced by the other man's flinty sense of honour. The sudden arrival of Dan's 14-year-old son, Will, further complicates the matter, since the boy is at an age when he thinks his father is an idiot, and he only has eyes for the dark charm of the outlaw.

Man on man

When the men finally arrive at the town of Contention to await the train, they must hole up out of sight. Dan and Wade are given the bridal suite, and left alone. If there was ever a Brokeback Mountain moment this would be it, but the subtext stays strictly subliminal. Wade's only seduction is with promises of money and ease.

Still, it's difficult to view Westerns in quite the same way after Brokeback. The innocence once attached to the genre has been complicated. Or maybe it was always that way, and I simply didn't notice as much. When Wade sketches a portrait of Dan with a big rifle in his lap, it's hard not to see it as anything other than an enormous phallic symbol. You might find yourself thinking, as I did, "Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

As moments tick down towards train's arrival, the film's big climax is almost Wagnerian in its orchestration, bullets flying, bodies falling, blood and mayhem, even a few stampeding long horns. In amongst the shooting and the cussing and the carrying on, the realization occurs between Ben and Dan that they have become extremely unlikely friends. "I ain't stubborn. I just wanted you to know that," says Dan. To Wade's astonishment, he understands and a fragile kinship blossoms, only to be cut down in the dirt. Because, the other defining element of the Western, like actual operas, is tragedy.

When bad men and good men come together, the good one gets a little bad, the bad one gets a little good, but it always ends with someone riding off into the sunset. Echoes of Shane, and innumerable John Wayne vehicles flicker in the distance, and you can't help but think of these predecessors while watching Yuma. They imbue the film with a well-used quality, like old leather buffed to a deep glow by years of hard use. It's a beautiful thing.

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