Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a Civil War vet lost in debt, struggling to keep his farm afloat and his family comfortable (including Gretchen Mol). When the offer to escort master criminal Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to jail is offered, Dan takes the job, finding on the journey through Arizona that the two men share an odd mutual respect; for Dan, the ride is a shot at redeeming his damaged reputation, while Ben contemplates the nature of his evil. On their trail is Ben's vicious gang of criminals, led by Charlie (Ben Foster, "X-Men: The Last Stand"), who hope to spring their boss and ride to freedom.
It's not that director James Mangold doesn't have the passion for the project, but more that he doesn't hold the raw nerve to shade material like "Yuma" to satisfactory ends. Coming off his Johnny Cash bio-pic "Walk the Line," the director seems emboldened by his previous portrait of American mythmaking enough to try a classical western on for size.
The details are all accounted for: the pickled swagger of the gunmen, the unrepentant chin music, the clippity-clop of the horses, the braaang! of the bullets...yet "Yuma" is not a tale of crude heroism in the traditional sense; it's study of two conflicting ideologies, with Dan and Ben learning to appreciate each other and the sticky situation they're in. It's is a fascinating tug of war, I just never felt the critical pull of conscience the story should have had in spades. Mangold has created more of an oater version of "My Dinner with Andre," settling on bland patches of dialogue to further the characters' consideration, instead of the soulful searching a more refined filmmaker would've pursued. One can clearly see the anguished intent, but it lays there cold and lifeless, constipating tremendous actors who justifiably work hard to cut the screen deep.
Putting Crowe and Bale in the same frame together is asking for trouble, since both actors are enormously versatile, but also share a deep appreciation for restraint. Much of "Yuma" is a staring contest between these two men, so Mangold employs Ben Foster to punch up the film as right-hand-man Charlie.
If you've never heard of Foster before, pat yourself on the back. This method-abusing young actor adores his idiosyncratic touches, and he loves to play at the highest decibel level. Foster turns Charlie into a homicidal dandy: the gunslinger treats the southwestern desert as his own personal modeling runway, and flicks on every afterburner of indication he's packed in his pockets to keep the camera glued on him. Foster makes Bale and Crowe look like George Romero extras by comparison, and that isn't a good thing for a film as dependent on metered emoting as this is.
Another element that annoyed me during the feature was the absence of scope. "Yuma" is a claustrophobic thriller, intended to be a confining experience. However, Mangold seems to check every other western tradition off his list, why not an appreciation for the environment? The picture barely pays mind to nature and the brutal elements, instead staying in constant close-up with the actors. Mangold's tight focus also monkeys with the film's spatial relationships. All too often the action will become a bewildering blur of staging rather than an enthralling construct of violence, increasing the already nagging chorus of logic gaps that do their best to undermine the film.
As "3:10 to Yuma" starts to make a run for the ultimate showdown, I was amazed to feel so numb to it all. This is not a dramatic endeavor that invites participation, merely silent observation. I wish the goods contained within this hard-boiled western were worth such careful inspection.