I haven't had much interest or faith in the modern western-movie. Even Clint Eastwood's famous and much beloved deconstruction of the wild west left my mostly bored. In fact, if pressed on the issue, I'd probably say the western died after Once Upon a Time in the West, Sergio Leone's true wild west masterpiece and the western that made almost every single western after it an exercise in superfluity and derivation, with the possible exception of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Since Leone and his coterie of stark and mythic figures rode off, and especially in our modern takes on the genre, westerns have become burdened with an almost morbid fixation on psychological motivations and moral imperatives, both of which twist characters and propel them forward, often against the own wishes. Heroes, and perhaps more often anti-heroes, are tortured by their convictions and lead to extreme circumstances that somehow, in the end, justify or prove that they were Men. So often, however, these stories feel contrived, disingenuous or just plain clumsy. Cinematic verve and pure entertainment has been sucked from the western, leaving us with an incarnation of a once-great genre that now pales in comparison to its former self.
While managing to be quite entertaining, at least up until it's ridiculous and improbable ending, 3:10 to Yuma I think falls prey to these pitfalls. Similar to the much better The Proposition from two years ago, 3:10 to Yuma is more concerned with being an introspective character study than a gunslinging action film, which would be fine if it were done honestly. But while all the characters' actions and decisions made sense and felt real in The Proposition, even in the most extreme of circumstances, they feel slightly contrived and too convenient here, especially in the last act when the bullets start flying. When notorious outlaw and glorified serial killer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is captured, Dan Evans (Christian Bale, who isn't nearly as believable or effective as he is normally) is among those recruited to fend off Wade's gang and escort the famed outlaw to the 3:10 to Yuma, a prison train. Along the way to the train, Wade develops a fondness, or at least a grudging respect, for Evans, a relationship which in the end both vindicates the Evans character and, for some unknown and contrived reason, brings out a touch of goodness in the Wade character.
3:10 to Yuma only works as a character study and honestly I think that's all it wants to be. However, it is surprisingly uninteresting and ineffective for a movie so focused on character development and psychological drama. Evans is an earnest and moral character trying to instruct his dismissive and unimpressed son on the ways of being a man; Wade is a sadistic killer and a leader of a pack of even more sadistic killers. They are both unfortunately rather one-note up until the end when, without much warning, Wade demonstrates that he's not as bad as everyone thinks he is. But this is baffling. Several of Wade's actions in the last act, and one particularly bloody one at the very end, just do not make any sense, especially given the level of sadism and callousness that he demonstrates throughout most of the film. If the film is trying to suggest that the goodness of Evans overcame the evilness of Wade, it is doing so in a very contrived and clumsy manner, since nothing ever happens between them that would justify a friendship; if it's trying to say Wade wasn't actually as evil as he appeared, it is glossing over the vicious nature of many of Wade's crimes. What makes any character drama effective is the believability of actions and decisions and, ultimately, 3:10 to Yuma fails to convince in this area. Perhaps in 1957, when the original 3:10 to Yuma was released (the film is a remake, after all), this rather contrived treatment of morality might have made sense; here, though, it just feels silly and fails to capture the psychological complexity of good and evil natures.