Sunday, January 27, 2008

3:10 To Yuma - A Potboiler With Purpose

So it's Saturday night -- "date night" for me and my husband Warren.  But because we have a 13-month old son, "dating"means scrounging up whatever time we have after The King has deigned to sleep.  King Xavier reigned until 10:30pm, getting us off to a very late start on our date night (anyone with a kid knows that 10:30 is no longer the start but the end of an evening.  Lame, yes, but it's all there in the parenting contract -- read the fine print).  We were supposed to watch "Juno" but I was so tired I secretly wanted to watch a movie I had little interest in so I could fall asleep and not care, but also get the credit for selfless compromise.  So if I throw "27 Dresses" into the mix next week, what can he say other than "pass the popcorn"?  (Knowing Warren though, he can say a lot -- I'm still reeling from his "Sweet Home, Alabama" commentary from six years ago -- a movie I dragged him to early in our courtship.  As a professional comedian though, his screeds are FUNNY.  And deserved.)  Anyway, I assumed because "3:10 To Yuma" is a remake of an old potboiler western it would be easy to zone out on -- as they were moving cattle or whatever, I'd be counting sheep.  Little did I know how engrossing the movie would be on a pop level (tense action, slick violence, cool bad guy lines like "even bad men love their mamas") as well as a deeper level (good v. evil, heroism, devotion to family, camaraderie, transcendence).

To be truthful, when we finished watching my first and only thought was "cool movie." But, seeing as how I was on a "date," I decided to have the post-movie "So what did you think?" conversation.   I thought it would go,  Me: "I liked it."  Him: "Yeah, me, too. Good acting.  Cool setpieces."  Me: "Yeah.  Love you, good night."  Instead, my husband took a beat, reflected, and as he began to speak the deeper levels of the movie were revealed to me. Warren surmised that Ben Wade (Russell Crowe's charismatic bad guy) started off the movie believing he was "rotten as hell" and willing to kill anyone in his way including members of his own gang, but his ultimate respect for his captor Dan Evans (brilliantly played by Christian Bale with a desperate, feral morality) caused him to recognize the potential goodness in himself, so much so that he metaphorically murders his bad side and honors Dan by getting on the 3:10 to Yuma (a train to prison) instead of taking the easy road of escape.  The ending also implies that Wade will be a free man again, but will he be a free man who forms a new blood-thirsty, soulless gang, or will he be a man who becomes a loving father and husband like Dan?  I think he'll lean towards the latter because the Ben Wade who gets on the train is at least willing to take the implied journey to rehabilitation and redemption.  Or will it be a stop gap and lead him to a life like Clint Eastwood's William Muny in "Unforgiven"?
(If you haven't seen "Unforgiven" or it's been a while, I recommend checking it out -- it's a fantastic thematic companion piece to "3:10 to Yuma.")  Either way, the concept that being true to your heart (as Dan was) can influence even the coldest of killers (Ben) to search for his own elevates the movie for all viewers, even those (like myself) who were not initially looking beyond its slickly satisfying pop surface.

Warren then broke down the subtext of the father-son relationship between Ben Wade and his right-hand henchman Charlie Prince, who is effectively played by Ben Foster as a 19th-Century Terminator (Robert Patrick's T-1000, please, not Schwarzenegger) and juxtaposed it to the overt, pop father-son relationship between Dan Evans and 14-year-old William (Logan Lerman of the defunct WB's "Jack And Bobby").  Among all of Warren's insightful, scholarly musings (always nice to be reminded how bright your spouse is, even at 1am when you kind of want him to shut up and let you sleep), I managed to point out the unrequited homosexual undertones of Charlie Prince's attachment to Ben Wade (elegantly expressed at the time as"Um, I think there was a gay thing happening in there, too").  Warren trumped me again by informing me that dynamic is a typical staple in many westerns and the documentary "The Celluloid Closet" devotes a large segment to gay subtext in oaters.

As Warren continued to support his thoughts with specifics within scenes and spot-on dialogue quotes (I only remembered the slick stuff like the "mamas" line quoted above), I realized I really didn't "see" "3:10 to Yuma" and that I should watch it and probably every western I ever saw at least once more (with the exception of "Unforgiven" which I managed to "get" when I first saw it in 1992 and in subsequent cable viewings).  Because, probably more than every once in a while, you can lift the top off a potboiler and see something's actually cooking.  

Deep Pop.  We love it.


Teddy Tenenbaum said...

Kudos to you and Warren for some excellent analysis. We enjoyed the movie at our house much more than we thought we would as well. Great writing, great performances. Simple engaging plot with complex characters. I have to admit that we had one fairly large problem with the finale that only marginally impacted our overall enjoyment, but Warren seems to have put it into context nicely with his theory about Ben's journey. (SPOILER ALERT!) Our problem was that we couldn't quite buy that Ben would risk his own life and his own freedom to help Dan, or at least we didn't feel that this character turn was sufficiently set up. But looking at it from Warren's POV, it feels more substantial now. I kind of want to go back and look at it again with this in mind.

Nice work!

Lori Lakin Hutcherson said...

I know what you mean but Warren pointed to the moment where Ben shares his story with Dan about being abandoned by his mother. Dan is willing to sacrifice his life to protect his family and is in a sense the parent that Ben never had/wishes he had had. So when Dan says he's never been a hero in his son's eyes, Ben decides to help him because on some primal level he longs for that kind of devotion. If you can't buy that the movie or this character goes that deep, ain't it good to know at least my husband is?

Michael in New York said...

Please do watch the original. As people so often tiresomely say, the remake can't compare. Really, the original is so airtight and...perfect I have no idea why they remade it. The modest opening up of the story just detracts from the beautiful forward thrust of the original. It will be a little disconcerting since the "original" will now be more like a remake to you since you'll see it second. Wait till some time has passed and check it out. It's one of my very favorite Westerns, which meant I was far less kind to the remake. Bale and Crowe, for starters, should have switched roles.