American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma" restores the wounded heart of the Western and rescues it from the morass of pointless violence. The Western in its glory days was often a morality play, a story about humanist values penetrating the lawless anarchy of the frontier. It still follows that tradition in films like Eastwood's "Unforgiven," but the audience's appetite for morality plays and Westerns seems to be fading. Here the quality of the acting, and the thought behind the film, make it seem like a vanguard of something new, even though it's a remake of a good movie 50 years old.
The plot is so easily told that Elmore Leonard originally wrote it as a short story. A man named Dan Evans (Christian Bale), who lost a leg in the Civil War, has come to the Arizona territory to try his luck at ranching. It's going badly, made worse by a neighboring bully who wants to force him off his land. The territory still fears Indian raids, and just as much the lawless gang led by Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), which sticks up stagecoaches, robs banks, casually murders people and outguns any opposition. Through a series of developments that seem almost dictated by fate, Dan Evans finds himself as part of a posse sworn in to escort Wade, captured and handcuffed, to the nearby town of Contention, where the 3:10 p.m. train has a cell in its mail car that will transport Wade to the prison in Yuma and a certain death sentence.
Both Dan and Ben have elements in their characters that come under test in this adventure. Dan fears he has lost the confidence of wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) and teenage son Will (Logan Lerman), who doubt he can make the ranch work. Still less does Alice see why her transplanted Eastern husband should risk his life as a volunteer. The son Will, who has practically memorized dime novels about Ben Wade, idealizes the outlaw, and when Dan realizes the boy has followed the posse, he is not pleased. Wade intuits, however, that the boy is following him, and not his father.
That's an insight into Wade. He plays his persona like a performance. He draws, reads, philosophizes, is incomparably smarter than the scum in his gang. Having spent untold time living on the run with them, he may actually find it refreshing to spend time with Dan, even as his captive. Eventually the two men end up in a room in the Contention hotel, overlooking the street, in earshot of the train whistle, surrounded outside by armed men who want to rescue Ben or kill him.