Genres come and go in cycles in the world of movies, with every major category having its time in the spotlight until it hits a point of over-saturation, after which it takes a backseat until a film can come along and re-infuse the genre with new life. For example, horror was long thought to be dead until a revival spearheaded by Scream powered the scary movie back to the forefront. The successful translation of The Ring a few years later added further fuel to the fire. But recently, a glut of adaptations and torture films have milked horror dry--at least for the time being. So what long-dead genre can step up and bring something relatively new to the screen?
The folks behind 3:10 to Yuma, which is itself a remake of a 1957 film, are hoping that the answer to that billion dollar question is the western. Producer Cathy Konrad, who was working on 1997's Cop Land when the prospect of resurrecting 3:10 was first presented to her, embraces the idea of taking a second look at genres in need of a comeback. "I think sometimes when things haven't been done in a while, the tendency is to say, 'Let's not do that, no one wants to see it.' And in reality, I think as filmmakers, it's a really interesting challenge to say, 'Hey, we haven't seen it in a while, maybe we should see it again.' It's not because people weren't interested, it's because we aren't making it."
Trying to predict what audiences will want before the demand is actually expressed has worked well for Konrad. As a producer, she partnered with 3:10 director James Mangold on two Oscar darlings: 1999's Girl, Interrupted, which turned out to be a huge turning point in Angelina Jolie's career, and 2005's Walk the Line, which saw a country-flavored musical drama become a mainstream hit. Konrad was also the visionary producer behind the aforementioned genre savior Scream, as fate would have it.
One of the challenges the 3:10 crew faces is marketing the western to a new generation largely unfamiliar with its conventions. In a totally unscientific survey, I've been noticing that the biggest advocates of the 3:10 remake amongst both critics and fans tend to be older viewers. Most seem excited over the mere fact that a western is being made and promoted as a major studio feature. The general consensus of praise seems to be more of the "it's about time" variety than the "this is a brilliant film" ilk.
Personally, I've generally been underwhelmed by the western genre for the main reason that is shared by most of the kids out there: simply, it seems dated. I lump it in the same group as the spy flick--a genre that overly romanticizes a bygone era that bears little relevance to today's world. It falls in that grey area of being too alien to be relatable for a modern audience, and yet too grounded in reality to be magical escapism. Cattle wranglers heisting my livestock and galloping off to some dirty saloon where law is established with a six-shooter? I just don't get the appeal of that.
Of course, there are exceptional films that are, technically, westerns. The easiest modern example is Unforgiven, which was actually more a dramatic character piece than a wild west shoot out. Acknowledging that formula for success, the new incarnation of 3:10 to Yuma tries to take a page from Clint Eastwood's playbook and develop compelling backstories for the two central characters, Dan Evans and Ben Wade, played by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, respectively. Evans is a physically and emotionally wounded family man who doesn't have the respect of his eldest son, while Wade is a murderous criminal whose misdeeds have caught up with him. The two meet when Evans joins a posse (a real posse with guns and legal authority, not some entourage of bodyguards and starf*ckers) to escort a captured Wade to the town of Contention, where a 3:10 train bound for Yuma will take him to stand trial for his crimes. Along the way, Evans and the other hired hands come under attack from several marauders, including Wade's gang, which is being led by obsessive sharpshooter Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), who has even less of a conscience than Wade when it comes to killing.
The motivations for several characters (most noticeably central antagonist Wade) are often shaky, and the action sequences are oddly comical on occasion. But 3:10 to Yuma masks most of its shortcomings with strong performances. Christian Bale particularly stands out, and is truly establishing himself as a renowned chameleon type seemingly comfortable in any skin. He is well supported in the early stages of the story by Gretchen Mol and Logan Lerman in the roles of Evans' wife and son. They are small parts, but critical ones that add depth to Evans as a character.
Director James Mangold and screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas were thrilled with the performance Russell Crowe turns in, counting him among a scarce few who could successfully pull off the part of Ben Wade with a certain blend of charisma and villainy. Brandt and Haas observe, "There are very few actors today, Russell obviously being one of them, who can do what Glen Ford could do, which was smile at you, charm you, and then shoot you."
Despite the accomplishments of Bale and Crowe, it's Ben Foster who steals the show as Wade's second-in-command, Charlie Prince, especially when it comes to the action. Prince may be a little Psych 101 when it comes to his adoration of his boss, but that doesn't prevent the performance from being a fun watch. A ruthless killer who engages in some wonderfully underhanded tactics to get the job done, Prince has unmatched speed and accuracy when it comes to gunning down the opposition.
In a show of excessive humility, everyone seems more than willing to defer the credit for the character of Prince to their peers. Michael Brandt and Derek Haas claim that he was a much simpler creation in their original script, and say that it was all the hard work of Ben Foster. Foster, meanwhile, credits the writers for laying out everything on the page for him. He also explains that costume designer Arianne Phillips, armed with a rock 'n' roll background, styled Prince with a certain flair, and that outlaws like him were, to some extent, the rock stars of their day, both in notoriety and their actual dress. "I found a very similar leather jacket in a museum from that time. White leather," Foster notes.
Peter Fonda, who plays one of Wade's captors, says that films like Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and The Proposition prove that the western is still alive. "It's not really as dead as you think," he says. "It's just the big studios don't talk about it because they don't know how to sell them."
So will 3:10 to Yuma reignite interest in gunslingers of the Old West? Obviously, time will tell. But one thing is certain: if the western becomes a viable cash cow once more, those big studios will indeed be talking, and they will figure out how to sell the hell out of them.
* Quotes for this article are derived from our interviews with producer Cathy Konrad, director James Mangold, screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, and actors Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, and Peter Fonda, conducted August 21, 2007.