3:10 to Yuma: The Train to Oscarland Leaves Right on Schedule

Gritty is the new flashy.

Well, it’s October, and this time of year inspires me to look back on the year behind me and think, “How can I improve myself? What can I do better in 2008 that I didn’t do in 2007? Is there still time to make 2007 into a glorious, organized, and accurate ASSAULT UPON THE OSCARS??” That’s right. It’s Oscar time. “In October?” you say. Surely! Starting in the fall, films large and small start coming out of the woodwork, out from under the behinds of the studios, who have been sitting on them in an attempt to optimize their chances of becoming Oscar contenders. The theory is that if the film is fresh in the minds of the Academy, it will have a better chance of getting its attention.

The fact that the Academy sorely needs to be purged and repopulated notwithstanding*, it is a little sad that those fantastic films that have already been released this year might get looked over. Last year I bungled it. I didn’t do enough research on the nominated films, made some predictions that were way off, and ended up having to watch Freaky Friday while everyone ate really complicated cupcakes that I made myself.

I hate losing bets.

This year I’m keeping my eyes and ears open, my mouse on rottentomatoes.com, and my fingers on my Regal Cinema card. We gotta stay on top of these films, people. My “I know the stupid Academy so well that I have it down to a pathetic predictable science” position isn’t quite as solid if I continue to get predictions wrong (I can’t believe I overlooked Forest Whittaker for that Best Actor award last year. Biopics! Dictators! Africa! That role was made for the Oscars! Tailor made! Wake up, Howson!).

The first clear intentional contender this Fall is 3:10 to Yuma. Even my brother, who hated Stardust (?!?), loved this James Mangold Western. I had heard so much about it, and it was so universally celebrated that I sat in the theater during the previews, pre-basking in the glow. “This movie is bound to change my life,” I thought happily.

Well, yeah, it was good. It was great, even. Westerns seem so nice and fresh and outdoorsy and bloody at the moment. After all the flashy special effects we were treated to all summer, 3:10 to Yuma jump starts those parts of our brain that have been sleeping for the last few months. Mangold’s remake of a 1957 film of the same name focuses on pride, honor, and damn good filmmaking. I thought Russell Crowe had long ago decided to conserve the energy needed to deliver a great performance, but it turns out he still had another good one in him. Or maybe the cold, deadly character of Ben Wade, head of a fearsome gang of stagecoach robbers and ne’er-do-wells, finally lit a fire under Crowe. Whatever the inspiration was, it worked. He is both chilling and weary at the same time, wryly submitting to the makeshift posse charged with transporting him to the prison-bound train.

Desperate to save his farm and earn back a little of the confidence of his family, struggling rancher Dan Evans (Christian Bale) squares his shoulders and agrees to join the crew. The ensuing journey is a little predictable (everyone learns a little about each other and themselves, etc.) but spotlights one of the reasons movies rule — long, painful close-ups of the faces of excellent actors who know how to make minute changes of expression to reflect the various psychological ramifications of their situation. Who knew that Christian Bale clenching his jaw to the tune of a single dulcimer (Marco Beltrami‘s score is one of the prime tone-setting elements of the film) would be enough to accelerate the pulse and dampen the brow.

Therefore, I think it’ll probably be a Best Director nomination for this one, rather than Best Picture. It wasn’t mind-blowing enough as a whole to warrant the latter, but the manipulation of the medium to create moods and emotional responses via Christian Bale’s jaw is an example of directing at its best.** Speaking of prominent jawlines, 3:10 to Yuma does deserve a special award in my heart for the best cameo role ever, but unfortunately the Oscars don’t take place in my heart this year. Or any year, for that matter, since that incident in 2002 when my heart went a little crazy and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson won every possible award for his stirring performance as The Scorpion King.

I’m back to reality this year though, and I’m keeping score. I know your game, 2008 Academy Awards, and as Christian Bale is my witness, I will never lose an Oscars bet again.

* If filmmakers as a group were the best judge of films, why is M. Night Shyamalan turning out crap every other year?
** Even though the Academy tends to shower with praise Russell Crowe films that are much, much weaker than this one, I can’t see it taking even a Best Picture nomination. True, the Academy often honors films that aren’t mind-blowing, but they have to be about racism or a dead musician. Or both!

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

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