Western Wednesday With Blake Howard

September 6, 2017
Damnation, salvation, heartbreak and love: the morality plays of James Mangold

In the final paragraph of Roger Ebert’s review of 3:10 to Yuma – the subject of this column – he writes: “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western.”

Nearing the conclusion of the second term of the Bush administration, four seminal Westerns emerged to provide such an attempted reset. This week’s Western Wednesday column targets another picture from that traffic jam of terrific films that arrived on screens in the latter part of 2007. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, places an icon of the West and his questionable deeds in the vice-like grip of obsessive fanaticism. The Coen Bros. adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, is a post morality Neo-Western, a journey to the Tex/Mex borderlands where a chance discovery of some ill-gotten cartel gains for Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) means that he triggers the pursuit of psychopathic bloodhound Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood reflects the foundational greed coursing through the oil-filled veins and glistening in the piercing gaze of Daniel Day Lewis’ American frontier dreamer, Daniel Plainview. Rest assured readers, they’ve got columns coming.

This week the Western in question is James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of the 1957 film of the same name based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

Mangold’s remake of Yuma is the most formal and literal (as it’s a remake of a film from 50 years earlier) Western of the quartet, and Mangold’s most explicitly labelled “Western” in his body of work. However, there’s a throughline of ambivalent yet virtuous characters also seen at the vanguard of Walk the Line, The Wolverine, and Logan. Mangold is obviously a disciple of the maverick anti-hero of country music, Johnny Cash, the subject of Mangold’s terrific biopic, Walk the Line. Joaquin Phoenix, one of the greatest actors of any generation, delivers a devastatingly good performance (dramatically and in song). It’s fitting that his formula for that film so successfully adhered to the model of what we’ve come to identify as the biopic that it broke the genre. At its centre, Cash (Phoenix) is a wounded heart, searching for contentment while wrestling his affinity for rebellion. June Carter Cash – Reese Witherspoon in her Oscar-winning performance is the gravitational pull for Cash. Cash (according to Phoenix and Mangold) is a man in touch with his darkest impulses and June corrects his reflex to personal damnation.

Immortality is a damnation of its own. In my review of Logan, I said that “the comic book movie genre has leapt forward in quality in the last 17 years. Logan reaches the pinnacle of the genre that The Dark Knight stands atop.” Mangold and Jackman’s outings with Wolverine are the rare examples that represent the morality, empathy and archetypal echoes of those begrudging rogue cowboys compelled to do good in whatever terrain. Comic book movies, the dominant popular genre of our time, are quagmires of senseless violence. They’re bloodless; resurrection and restoration is a default. This lack of humanity in the face of lawlessness is an appetite trigger for the glory days of the Western. Mangold creates a setting and a structure for the Western anti-hero text and subtext to collide.

Logan reveals its Western DNA in as pronounced a way. Charles (Sir Patrick Stewart) explains to Laura (Dafne Keen) that Shane “…is a very famous picture Laura, it’s almost a hundred years old.” In the adjoining room, the slow decay of the Wolverine is before us. Hugh Jackman’s Logan swills the contents of a mini bar, and takes a seat to pore over the dossier that outlines the ‘Intergen’ experiments on a new generation of mutant children. In Laura’s profile, there’s the all-important words: “Source DNA: James Howlett” (Logan’s true name). There aren’t any words, but a certainty of what she is. The passing reveal unfolds briskly, but its power is true. When Logan discovers an X-Men comic, he interrupts their viewing.

“You do know they’re all bullshit, right? Maybe a quarter of it happened and not like this.” The allegiance to Mangold’s pursuit to the morality beneath the lycra is the same reactionary knee-jerk replicated in the ‘60s revisionist Westerns railing against decades of canonical simplification.

Let’s rewind. In the opening moments of Yuma, as darkness engulfs a ranch house, two brothers (Logan Lerman plays the older brother, William) are lying in bed. The younger brother, wheezes and splutters and William (Lerman), lights a match. The small flame brightens up the entire room. After William checks that his brother is alright, he can’t help but glance across to a pulp rag, telling tales of lawmen in the face of lawlessness. Proto-bullshit of exaggerated deeds. Reality crashes hard on a family where father Dan (Christian Bale), a man mutilated in war, must contend with greedy and vindictive landowners and the chance encounter with a master manipulator and infamous thief in Ben Wade (Russell Crowe at his most slippery and delicious).

In the truest sense, Yuma is about people ensnared by the inherent lawlessness of the frontier. Institutional mercenaries are wielded against bands of outlaws and entire towns of gentiles are sent scurrying into their flimsy wooden homes to avoid becoming collateral damage. Ben Wade (Crowe) is antagonistic by nature, pressure-testing the mettle of the men around him. Once you’ve dealt death with the proficiency of a poker hand, your perspective must shift; and Crowe plays Wade with a philosophical contemplation. Dan (Bale) is a curiosity for Wade; a strange cocktail of principles and perseverance in a world that repeatedly looks to kick you while you’re down. Dan’s determination, in the face of the overwhelming inevitability of a locomotive, is admirable to Wade. When this “tough rancher” finally succumbs to the malicious stalking of Wade’s scavenger crew, Wade must stare into the chasm of Dan’s death. He’d stubbornly accomplished bringing Wade to justice, providing for his family in the process. Wade’s found novelty and satisfaction for his new-found friend. Wade’s “you did it Dan” echoes with emptiness. Watching his unceremonious death triggers a choice. A good man dying at the hands of his men, is simply too much to bear.

Johnny Cash once said: “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, Judgment Day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humour, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother. And God.” Great Westerns, like Mangold’s 3:10 Yuma, attend well to these words.

A Michael Mann fanatic all the time, Blake Howard is an Aussie film writer, editor and member of the Online Film Critics Society. Co-founder of the acclaimed Australian film website Graffiti with Punctuation, he offers articulate analysis across the gamut of cinema from blockbusters to indies galore.

A former co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, he’s also behind the top-rating film podcasts such as Pod Save Our Screen and The Debrief, a freelance contributor to outlets from Penthouse to ABC News 24, and a co-host of the weekly ‘Gaggle of Geeks’ on 2SER radio.

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