Dan Evans (Christian Bale) knows a thing or two about violence. He lost a leg during the Civil War, and life on the Arizona ranch where he’s moved his family (from Massachusetts) hasn’t been easy. If it’s not the Apaches menacing, it’s the ranch deed-holder, who sends thugs to burn down his barn when Dan falls behind on payments. Gaunt and exhausted by all he’s seen and done, Dan stops his 14-year-old son Will (Logan Lerman) when he picks up a gun and heads out after the barn-burners. “I’ll take care of this,” he says. “No,” Will sighs, looking his dad straight in the face. “You won’t.”
Now you know. This — the kid’s disappointment and distrust — is what drives Dan. Facing financial ruin because he’s had to pay for his younger son’s medicine (the boy’s difficulties breathing are why they’re living in the desert), Dan takes a decision that alarms but doesn’t quite surprise his long-suffering wife, Alice (Gretchen Mol). When the notorious thief and murderer Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) rolls into town and suddenly finds himself in custody, Dan volunteers to help escort him to the town of Contention. Here he’ll board a train to Yuma, to be tried and likely hanged. Dan volunteers on what seems a whim, but he’s got a pile of reason: he’s put off by the villain’s arrogance, desperate for the $200 payment, and, being an Army sharpshooter, he’s an asset to the party too. It also wouldn’t be a bad thing if he could impress angry Will.
Dan understands the risk. During the early moments of 3:10 to Yuma, he and his sons witness Wade’s gang execute a successful stagecoach robbery, flat-out murdering the drivers, a couple of Pinkerton agents (one manning a Gatling gun, which grants the scene no end of noise and fast-cut energy), and one of their own (for “putting us all at risk”). They also wound, quite maliciously, bounty hunter McElroy (Peter Fonda), with whom Wade has some history; crawling and bleeding in the dust, McElroy’s Wade’s abject mirror, both men committed to violence as a living. And now, though Dan has worked so hard to leave the war behind him, he will be drawn into their dirty, violent business.
But where Wade and McElroy allude to honor and manhood, Dan is upfront about his focus on the money. When the gang spots Dan and his boys, Wade’s psycho killer sidekick Charlie Prince (Ben Foster) is inclined to shoot again, but Wade is impressed by Dan’s canny sense of what’s at stake. All he wants is his cattle, scattered during the melee. If Will and Alice are briefly charmed by Wade’s courtesies, Dan is resolute about the numbers: “He’s killed more men than the drought.”
The bulk of 3:10 follows the three-day ride to Contention, Dan watching Wade and vice versa. If Wade is full of himself, quoting from Proverbs, fretting over a childhood trauma, and sketching portraits like Jack in Titanic, Dan is severe even in his devotion to Will, his skin stretched tight against his cheekbones, his own backstory a dark commentary on wartime insanity. Wade and Dan see in one another all kinds of capacity, for ruthlessness and accuracy, pride and brutality.
“It’s man’s nature to take what he wants,” taunts Wade. Dan does his best to resist that nature, but he’s surrounded by it. Their journey starts to resemble a slasher movie as fellow travelers fall away, hunted by Wade’s gang, attacked by Apaches, even, during an especially vicious display, hacked to death by a fork in the throat. Though Dan and Wade measure themselves against everyone else (say, the Apaches, who, according to Wade, “enjoy killing”), they’re more like their foes — and one another — than not. Though Wade admonishes, “Your conscience is sensitive, Dan, not my favorite part of you,” he’s also plainly moved by Dan’s efforts to provide moral instruction for Will. Where they live, the lesson can only be dreadful.
In elaborating that lesson, James Mangold’s remake of Delmer Daves’ original (based on an Elmore Leonard short story) occasionally takes the escort party on detours. One of these, through a railroad construction site, not only underscores the context for Dan’s woes (his deed-holder wants to sell the ranch to the Southern Pacific Railroad), but also the crass workings of ground-up capitalism. Chinese coolies scatter and stare at the approaching horsemen, their current project — a mountain tunnel — yawning blackly behind them.
When one of the overseers recognizes Wade as his brother’s murderer, payback ensues. Suddenly, the escort party is in the perverse position of saving their charge from men even more monstrous than he is. One fellow (Luke Wilson) is particular keen to torture Wade, which makes for all kinds of moral consternation, as the commonplace abuse of coolies is here displaced onto a white man. He’s a very bad white man, to be sure, but he’s a man in whom the escort party feels some investment. So, while the anonymous, numerous railroad workers stand back, the men with guns have it out. “You can’t do that,” declares one escort (Alan Tudyk), “It’s unnatural.” But that would be the point of torture, and so the moral objection, however moving, is also irrelevant.
3:10 submits that the American West and its enduring legacies are a function of capitalism, expedience and exploitation of resources. That’s not to say morality isn’t a useful measure, it’s just relative. As Wade puts it, “Even bad men love their mamas.” All the men in this movie think they’re doing the right thing, no matter how unhinged their actions may look. Supported by yes men, Wade feels fine about his choices, even superior to those who question him. If Dan has fewer options, he’s just as self-assured. Their evolving mutual appreciation leads to an amazing shootout and thrilling chaos, not resolution.