The quest for cajones

“I been standing on one leg for three goddamn years waitin’ for God to do me a favor,” says Dan Evans (Christian Bale) in the neo-western film 3:10 to Yuma. “He’s not listening.”

“I been standing on one leg for three goddamn years waitin’ for God to do me a favor,” says Dan Evans (Christian Bale) in the neo-western film 3:10 to Yuma. “He’s not listening.”

Evans, who got his leg shot off in a not-very-heroic manner during the Civil War, is a struggling cattle rancher who’s up to his bolo tie in debt. He’s about to lose his ranch, his two sons think he’s a pussy, and his beautiful wife is a bit of a nag.

A remake of a 1957 film based on Elmore Leonard’s short story of the same name, 3:10 to Yuma is a classic exploration of the pressures of manhood and the plight of the male ego. It’s a God-ain’t-listening, I-can’t-catch-a-break, the-world’s-beat-me-down, I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-gonna-take-it-anymore drama.

But, thanks to the novelty of a western setting and some stellar performances, the film really works. Set in the late 1800s, Yuma is a fun little period piece on the prairie, brimming with sleek shoot-outs, horse-driven action and characters worth caring about.

Evans may be a loser, but his life doesn’t suck because he’s a bad guy–a drought has killed a great deal of his livestock and he has a sick kid. The greedy sonofabitch who owns his land wants to level it to make room for the railroad. As we watch his barn burn down in an opening scene, it’s clear that Evans has long been a victim of fate and he’s feeling more than a little emasculated.

To score some cash and prove to the world that he has balls, Evans agrees to join a ragtag posse of do-gooders charged with putting murderous train robber Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) on the prison train to Yuma, where everyone hopes he’ll be hanged.

The film follows the escort posse on their perilous journey across the Arizona desert and through the dangerous Apache country.

Wade is the Hannibal Lecter of the Old West, a refined sociopath who’s quick on the draw and seems to possess super-human strength and intelligence. The group is, of course, pathetically unqualified to keep Wade captive–they can hardly turn their backs without Wade impaling one of them with a fork or tossing someone over a cliff.

But because the journey is long and there’s no such thing as headphones or text messaging, the posse actually has to converse and get to know each other. After many twists and turns and a fair amount of bloodshed, Evans and Wade somehow begin to form an understanding–a bond resembling friendship.

Bale (of Batman Begins fame) is very believable, as is hopelessly trodden-on Evans. Crowe does a polished and capable cowboy impression, smirking and mumbling cryptically under the brim of his black hat.

Surprisingly, Ben Foster (who played one of Claire’s boyfriends on Six Feet Under) gives by far the most inspired performance as Charlie Prince, the devoted lieutenant of Wade’s gang. Intense and wild-eyed, Foster is effortlessly creepy as he leads the gang on a bloody mission to free their boss.

As far as looks go, Yuma accurately captures the aesthetic of a Hollywood western, if not the actual Old West. The cast looks fairly rugged with their spray-on sunburns and dirt makeup, but still a bit too clean. Every inch of every set is covered in a filth that seems a tad too perfect, a little too brown. And all the dirty faces and crow’s feet are brightened with unlikely rows of pearly white teeth (except for Luke Wilson, who makes an odd cameo as a railroad construction overseer with a very yellow smile).

All in all, director James Mangold really got lucky with this film–his previous credits include textbook-drab biopic Walk the Line and the embarrassing crapfest Kate and Leopold.

The old west is a place you don’t see much in cinema anymore, and the novelty of the setting combined with a healthy, character-driven plot translates into a film that is sometimes silly, often touching and always a lot of fun.