3:10 to Yuma / Seraphim Falls

| September 12, 2007

It’s routinely proclaimed dead or dying, a genre lost to the annals of film history, a forgotten form. Yet so long as grown men still feel that primal urge to shoot guns and ride horses–to play cowboys and Indians like when they were young–the American Western will survive. Even the most well-groomed of name actors can’t resist the opportunity to reenact their childhood games now and again–to mussy up their hair, grow scraggly beards, and get a little dirt and grime underneath their fingernails. Put a wide-brimmed hat on him and Mel Gibson looks just like John Wayne, at least from where he’s standing. Boys will be boys, even in Hollywood, so every year or so we get an old-fashioned oater courtesy the Dream Factory–think Westworld-style fantasy camp for Eastwood-loving movie stars.
Don’t call it a trend just yet, but so far this year, we’ve actually seen two such vanity (or is it anti-vanity?) projects slip into theatres. Exhibit A: 3:10 to Yuma, opening this week, which pits a righteous Christian Bale against a dapper Russell Crowe in a battle of wits, bullets, and manly, period-appropriate facial hair. Exhibit B: Seraphim Falls, languishing to little fanfare on DVD, which finds a not-so-righteous Liam Neeson hunting a hardly dapper Pierce Brosnan across a vast open range. Both films are unmistakably star vehicles, anchored by accomplished actors moonlighting (some would say slumming) as renegades and desperados, playing rough in John Ford’s sandbox. Both are sturdy, efficient, handsomely made genre pieces. And both have bubblegum centers beneath their superficially hard-and-gritty shells. They’re Pop Westerns–violent but rarely brutal, staunchly committed to aesthetic realism yet thematically stuck in a romanticized Old West straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
3:10 to Yuma, especially, plays like a movie that might have been made fifty years ago… which, in a manner of speaking, it was. A remake of the 1957 Glenn Ford-Van Heflin vehicle, the film is punctuated by flashes of bloody, elaborate gunplay, yet as far as plot and execution are concerned, it’s a slavishly faithful redux. In the Heflin role is Christian Bale, somber and reserved as Dan Evans, an upstanding, down-on-his-luck rancher trying to keep his house standing and his family fed. When small-town authorities nab infamous outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe, in the Ford part), Evans agrees to escort the dangerous (but quite chatty) felon to a prison-and-noose-bound train a couple days off. A treacherous journey awaits the rancher and his posse, what with a murderer among them and a band of bloodthirsty disciples in close pursuit. Will they make it to the train in time, their lives intact and their payoff secured?
Briskly paced and structurally sound, 3:10 to Yuma is never less than entertaining, even when hammering home its Big Themes–honor, bravery, American stick-to-it-ness–and screeching to a halt for a melodramatic death scene or two. As staged by journeyman James Mangold (Walk the Line), the action scenes are proficient but unremarkable, lacking both the visceral punch of classic Peckinpah and the gonzo zeal of vintage Leone. This might matter if the movie relied more on its set-pieces and less on the chemistry between its opposing stars–really, 3:10 to Yuma lives or dies on the strength of its central performances. Fresh off his triumphant work in this summer’s Rescue Dawn, Bale at first seems unenthused–bored, even–to be playing such a virtuous hero. Yet as the film progresses, and the odds stack up against Evans and his men, the actor locates the wounded heart of his saintly character, making palpable his weariness and his conviction. It’s a study in getting something out of a nothing role.
Crowe, by contrast, has it easy: entrusted with the showier lead, he amps up the charm, transforming Wade into a verbose, literate anti-hero. This turns out to be a massive miscalculation, as the Aussie actor spends so much time coasting on his unflappable, rock-star charisma that he forgets to give the notorious villain even the scarcest hint of menace. The movie keeps telling us that Wade is a Very Bad Man, but we never see it in Crowe’s bemused, relaxed performance, and the script bends over backwards to justify each and every one of his onscreen murders. It’s an approach that ends up robbing the movie of tension, especially in its less-than-shocking, about-face climax, a redemptive switcheroo that Mangold doesn’t even begin to earn. What real danger there is in 3:10 to Yuma belongs almost entirely to the supporting heavy: as Wade’s vicious protégé, Disney Channel alum Ben Foster exudes bad boy swagger and bone-cold malice. The film could have used more of his deranged, wiry intensity.
There are no likable rogues or charming sociopaths in Seraphim Falls. A starker, more solemn affair, David Von Ancken’s debut feature fancies itself a western tone poem, and for a good portion of its running time, that’s exactly what it is. His pretty-boy features obscured by a bushy grey beard and a layer of dirt, Pierce Brosnan plays a mysterious outlaw on the run from mercenaries in post-Civil War Nevada. Liam Neeson, beardless but somber, is his relentless tracker. Dispensing with early exposition, the film tosses us right into the fold, with Brosnan’s on-the-lam cipher darting through beautiful, snowy woodlands, his tormenters never far behind. It’s like a 19th-century Fugitive: episodic in nature, with our sympathies divided between hunter and hunted. Such who’s-the-good-guy? gamesmanship requires top-notch acting on both ends; freed from their respective onscreen personas–Brosnan the dashing playboy, Neeson the pious mentor–the two stars rise admirably to the occasion, delivering terse, nuanced performances.
Unfortunately, unlike the more crowd-pleasing 3:10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls pulls its punches in the backstretch. Once out of the woods, it loses much of its loud-quiet-loud appeal–its elegiac and kinetic energy–falling back on tired old western conventions. Worst of all, after letting loose the film’s ho-hum Big Revelation (told via fiery flashback, with a scrubbed-clean Angie Harmon in cameo) Ancken denies us a proper, fatalistic finale, opting instead for a safer route not unlike 3:10‘s brothers-in-arms conclusion. The easy endings reveal soft sentiments–in a post-Deadwood world, there’s something quaint and rather harmless about 3:10 to Yuma and Seraphim Falls. Like Tombstone, that early ’90s, theme-park gunslinger, both films get off on Old West clichés, on period milieu, on iconic shoot-outs and standoffs. What they lack, as any dyed-in-the-wool John Wayne fan could attest, is true grit. Just don’t tell that to the stars–for two hours, let boys be boys.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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