This is a profoundly satisfying movie -- with the satisfaction still growing several days after seeing it, as I reflect on how and why it works so well.
Brief genealogy: Elmore Leonard's 1953 short story begat Delmer Daves' 1957 movie, a crisp and admirable Western but not on most "best of the genre" lists. Fifty years later, just about everything new that director James Mangold and his cast bring to the remake is both (1) an improvement and (2) perfectly true to the good bones of Leonard's story. And that's a lot of bones, because the story has two skeletons, two kinds of narrative, each thread generating its own tension and suspense within one plot.
Brief plot: A struggling Arizona rancher (Christian Bale) and his sons witness a robbery by a very bad outlaw gang. The very bad outlaw leader -- laid-back, smooth-talking, manipulative Russell Crowe -- is captured, and must be delivered to the railroad station so the title train can take him to trial. But, of course, his very bad gang -- now led by his very very bad second-in-command, Brad Foster (Six Feet Under) with a rattlesnake-heart transplant -- will do its damnedest to prevent that. The rancher volunteers for the escort "posse" because he needs the money, and we're off.
One thread is driven by the chronological suspense implicit in the title. Will they get to the station on time? How many of the escorts will survive the trip? Think High Noon, No Way Out... and yes, bizarre as it may sound, think "will the good guys get the Ring of Power to Mount Doom?"
The other thread is moral suspense. The prisoner, that silver-tongued devil, is alert to every opportunity not only to escape, but to harm his escorts or turn them against each other. How bad will our decent rancher have to become along the way? Will he be corrupted, pulled down to the prisoner's level? Think Cape Fear, The Desperate Hours. Think "will the Ring turn Frodo into another Gollum?"
Every scene, every incident, every line of dialogue advances one thread or the other, with a dozen memorable moments -- structural "beats" -- when they interact with each other in a new way. The external situation evolves along the way to the train station, changing the pressures on (and your expectations of) the characters. At the same time their moral positions vis-a-vis each other are evolving, so your hopes and fears about what will happen next acquire new facets. Circumstance and behavior push and pull each other so deftly that in the denouement, you accept extreme twists in both that would have seemed way over the top, unearned and arbitrary, in a lesser movie.
It's brilliant counterpoint, the more so because everyone involved knows it, trusts the good bones, and lets them work. When a point could be hammered home -- a "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" speech for Bale, or an "I'm more evil than you can imagine" flourish for Crowe -- the temptation is resisted, the point suggested or understated with an exchange of glances or a throw-away line. As you watch, that seems no more than the conventional laconic manner of the Western. Only afterward do you realize what a bravura display of confidence it really is: the movie can afford to trust you because it has you so completely in the palm of its hand.
Westerns have never been especially important or iconic to me. But 3:10 to Yuma skips my "best of the genre" list to take a place among my favorite movies.
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