If Hollywood is going to make Westerns like 3:10 to Yuma then Hollywood is going to have to make more Westerns. It’s both a thought-provoking morality play and a shoot-em-up good time, though sometimes I think it tortures its logic. The plot is taut, the action thrilling, and the performances terrific.

Christian Bale is Dan Evans, a Civil War vet who volunteers to help escort a prisoner to the prison train, though he doesn’t entirely know why. Russell Crowe is Ben Wade, a cold-blooded killer who connects with Evans, though we don’t entirely know why. The two forge a curious bond, even as Evans tries to send Wade to the gallows and Wade kills the other members of Evans’ posse.

(More after the jump. We usually bury spoilers after the jump, but I warn you that the rest of this post goes into deep detail about the plot, especially the ending.)

One of the first scenes is a spectacular stagecoach robbery undertaken by Wade and his gang. It’s a terrific scene that also shows Wade’s ruthlessness. But immediately I was taken with how great this movie looks and how great it sounds. The creak of a leather boot, the groan of a wooden plank, the clomp of a galloping horse: it all comes through so beautifully.

After the robbery, Wade is caught in town. The local boss for the railroad, a frequent target of Wade’s, decides to bring him to justice by getting him to the prison train at the town of Contention, a two days’ ride. Evans agrees to join the posse for some much-needed cash to save his farm. But this won’t be an easy journey to Contention, for Wade’s outlaw pals, led by the fiercely loyal Charlie Prince (played by Ben Foster), will be looking to free him- and likely kill his captors.

From there it’s a perilous journey through the mountains of Arizona. The posse slowly succumbs to Wade’s attacks and battles with bad men and Indians along the way, but Evans’ resolve to bring Wade to justice doesn’t falter. Eventually it’s Evans, his son, Wade, and the railroad boss holed up in a hotel room in Contention as Wade’s pals circle outside.

The big climax is a huge shoot-out through the city as Evans drags Wade through the town to the train station in time for the titular train. But “drags” isn’t the correct word because Wade by now is a willing participant in Evans’ quest. The criminal has come to admire the rancher’s sense of honor and respects his mission. It sounds very cheesy and perhaps it is to some extent, but it does make sense in the context of the film. Of course, it’s easier to understand Wade’s change of heart when it becomes clear that the prison in Yuma can’t hold Wade and that he knows he will never see the gallows even if he ends up behind bars. So helping out his new friend becomes something of a game for Wade with little consequence.

The very end strains credibility. Prince shoots Evans because, well, that’s what a good bandit is supposed to do to the man who holds the boss captive (though we are led to believe that Prince’s affection for Wade is more than just professional). This ticks off Wade, who quickly kills Prince and then executes the surviving members of his gang. We haven’t had any reason believe Wade is an impulsive man, susceptible to fits of rage that would result in him killing the very extremely loyal comrades who thought they were saving him. Some want to interpret this as Wade’s big change of heart, that he had grown to hate the evilness of his ways. I think if anything it’s the opposite, that the cold-blooded killing of his gang shows us just how bad Wade truly is. For whatever reason he found a stranger compelling and that man’s death pushed him to commit the mass murder of his supposed friends. It just goes to show how little those friends’ lives really meant to him. It’s also possible that the extra murders were to cover him for killing Prince since he knew his gang would turn on him.

See what I mean about tortured logic? It takes a lot of brain twisting to make that work, but I’m satisfied with my conclusion. The places I really have problems with come in the middle of the movie. This posse, save a bounty hunter and the railroad boss, seems to have little motivation to bring Wade to justice. It’s accepted as fact that the gang will gun them down if they find them – and they probably will, so what’s the point? Half of them aren’t even good men who seem to care about the ideal of justice. Then they get in this fight with a couple railroad foremen that just doesn’t make any sense. One posse member dies and it’s like, why is that worth fighting about?

Ok, fine. But this is a movie about Wade and Evans and this is where it’s most compelling. It seems like the smart thing for Evans to do is to not care and just let Wade go. Why is his life worth taking this man to prison? But we learn to understand Evans’ sense of honor, which isn’t a foolhardy idealism about justice but a yearning to stand up for something and to be a man that for once someone can be proud of. His farm is failing, half his leg was lost in the war, and he’s lost the respect of his son and wife. “I’m tired,” he tells his wife. “I’m tired of the way that [my sons] look at me. I’m tired of the way that you don’t.”

And so he ends up trapped in a hotel room in Contention, certain death awaiting him outside and an offer from Wade to leave peacefully with a pocketful of cash if he’d let him go. But Evans didn’t come all this way just to retreat again, so the race to the train is on. It’s easy to see how Wade could learn to care for this man.

So this post has become something of a stream of conscious account of my thoughts on the plot points. But it should be clear what an interesting and complex film this is. It’s also delightfully uncartoonish. The characters here are fairly bad shots for movie characters and Evans doesn’t hit anyone in the shoot-out that isn’t right in front of him. It’s still an exaggerated movie scene, but the good guy isn’t knocking the hat off a guy from 30 yards like in a normal Western, and I appreciated that. “This movie is so unrealistic,” whines someone on the imdb message boards. “They should’ve just shot the outlaws from the hotel window!” The fact that they don’t is a bad thing? In real life no one’s going to gun down 10 people from a window and I’m glad they don’t here.

3:10 to Yuma got two Oscar nods: one for Sound Mixing and one for Original Score. As discussed above, the Sound Mixing nomination is well-deserved. It’s a film rich with sound and meaningful silence. Admittedly I didn’t remember anything about the score and a few listens today didn’t do anything for me.

None of the performances really had a shot at nominations, but the leading men are stellar. Crowe’s Wade is cold, calculating, and ruthless, but wise and strangely sympathetic. Bale as Evans sells a complex character with irrational motivations. A big kudos goes to Porter as Prince, a very interesting character who comes off the most evil but who also has a desperate devotion to Wade that comes off subtle enough to not be too over-the-top. Porter also gives Prince a flair to his movements: a skip in his step and a flourish in his arms, like some sort of demented jester of death.

Terrific stuff and I hope this film’s box office success leads to more takes on the Western in the future.