Posted in Film, Writing

How to Write a Kick-Ass Western

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — 3:10 to Yuma (2007)

There are so many joys in this movie I don’t know where to begin. First of all, it must be said that I don’t really care for westerns. I don’t know what it is about them, but if I have a choice between a western and, well, ANYTHING ELSE, I’ll choose the other movie. Therefore I was surprised to enjoy this movie as much as I did. This is a supremely entertaining film that features not just great performances from its two leads but also from many of its supporting actors. It also marks an accomplished job from director James Mangold (Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line).

A remake of a 1957 film (and a pretty good example of a remake, at that), 3:10 to Yuma stars Christian Bale as Dan Evans, a former soldier struggling to maintain a life for his wife and two sons. The situation is pretty grim, as his land is being considered by others for railroad property. Soon enough, outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) and his men come riding into town. Ben splits up from his group and spends the night with a lady, only to wake up in the morning to find the local sheriff waiting for him. He is to be put on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where he will be tried and put in prison. The railroad offers a reward to anyone who helps transport him, enough for Dan to take part in the journey whisking Ben to the train station. The trip to the station turns out to be a lot more trying for all involved, and the survival of all, including Dan’s older son, is put into jeopardy.

The beauty of the film is in its simplicity. It’s got a classic Hollywood feel, featuring a story that doesn’t become convoluted or too stylized. From beginning to end the film is told fairly straightforward, with the tension building and building until its sensational finale. 3:10 to Yuma is a perfect example for how a thrilling action tale should be told. It’s not necessary to have wall-to-wall excitement from beginning to end in a movie like this. There are moments of thrills, but they are small ones. Director Mangold smartly lets the events unfold at a steady pace, never allowing the action to get ahead of the more involved character-driven scenes.

It would seem redundant at this point to explain the strengths of Mr. Crowe and Mr. Bale. They are truly two of the best actors working in the movies, and to see them together on-screen for much of this film’s running time is a lot of fun. Neither of them is truly stretching by any means, but they both are perfectly cast in their roles, with Crowe exuding both menace and intelligence as the villain Ben Wade and Bale showing an every-man quality in the background of a flawed, complex character.

The rest of the casting is brilliant, with terrific turns by Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Alan Tudyk, and especially Logan Lerman. Fonda has been around for decades, and it’s always exciting to see him in a new part, particularly one that puts him in so much jeopardy. Foster is especially memorable playing the most grotesquely inhuman of Wade’s calvacade. And Lerman transforms what could’ve been an annoying kid role into a great part played with verve from a true up-and-comer. The only big casting mistake was the decision to put Luke Wilson in this movie. He took me out of it and proved to be a distraction for the handful of scenes that he’s in. Thankfully he doesn’t stay around long.

As great as the journey is, it’s the finale that makes this movie truly special. Along the way Mangold makes us really feel for both these guys. Wade becomes a sympathetic villain, taking part in the sentence he’s destined for. While we expect him to turn at the blink of an eye, we want him to do the right thing. Bale we feel more afraid for because of his vulnerability and small ounce of naivete, and once his son becomes part of trek toward the train station, we expect something along the way to go wrong.

The final shoot-out wraps up a lot in a matter of minutes and yet feels completely right. The reaction each character takes to the fate of one of the primary characters in the end is in no way fake or sentimentalized. It’s a strange mixture of raw intensity and classic Hollywood. While we’re biting our nails off in suspense in the film’s closing minutes, we are also aware we are in the hands of a good director and will be satisfied with the end results no matter who lives or dies.

Watching Like a Writer

Writing this now, I feel like my appreciation for the western genre has gone up, if only just a little. I’m not going to rush out and see a bunch of old westerns by any means, but I definitely see now that I can fully enjoy a western and all its genre has to offer, if there are good stories and performances to go along with it. The genre shouldn’t matter, in the end. What really counts is a great story. This got me to thinking about what makes for a great western yarn. I’ve never written a western novel or short story, but watching 3:10 to Yuma made me think about attempting it in the near future.

Exercise!

Think of a story-line for a western. What would the short story or novel be about? Who would be your main character?

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