Every time I watch this movie, I can’t get it out of my head. I love big, morally ambiguous films like this one… stories that don’t spell out everything, that lures us into a false sense of security about characters and then sock us in the gut with their actions… tales that make me think. It’s my curse to analyze everything. If a movie doesn’t give me anything to think about, it sucks. So, I’m much more likely to love a movie that asks me to ponder something than one that doesn’t. (This could explain why the vast majority of movies these days bore the hell out of me.)
There are a few films floating around out there that I love because they give me something to ponder. This is one of them.
The Plot: ex-Civil War soldier Dale Evans volunteers to help escort notorious captured outlaw Ben Wade to the train to Yuma. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Wade’s gang of thugs is hard on their trail.
What do I love about it? How about everything? But that’s a lot to take in, so I’ll start with the basics.
The Director: on the commentary, James Mangold says he wanted to make the “tightest possible film for audiences,” because he feels like many movies are “pretentious” in taking up too much of the audience’s time. He cut this movie with the idea of, “Do I DESERVE to take up another five minutes of someone else’s time?” I like that. It shows respect. It shows a tight script. It comes in just under two hours, yet it has an amazing amount of character development. This is what every movie should be.
The Symbolism: many Christians have complained that this film is anti-religious. Wade carries around a revolver with a crucifix on the side of it, called “The Hand of God.” He quotes scripture when he’s not tossing sanctimonious jerks off cliffs. And he often calls people out on their hypocrisy. But, if you think the surface representation of faith in this film is “it,” you’re missing the entire point: that this film is in a sense, a journey toward redemption for both men. Wade tries to tempt Evans with evil – by offering to pay him a thousand dollars to let him go. By the end, Evans’ determination to stick with his principles changes both of them. It turns Evans into a hero, and Evans becomes a Christ figure for Wade. Evans is the first man Wade has ever met who actually can’t be bought.
The Parallels: This is where it really gets interesting. Here, we have two men who are more alike than we might think – both of them are in a tough situation, both have a younger man in their life watching their every move, and both are intelligent. Wade is the anti-Evans, and vice versa. Wade is bored with life; Evans is just trying to survive. Wade is fearless, because he doesn’t feel as if he has anything to lose; Evans is a coward. Wade is adored and looked up to by Charlie; Evans’ son despises him for his “cowardice.” In the end, they are “almost” friends, because Wade decides to help Evans become a hero to his son.
The Boys: there are also similarities between their “sons” – the ruthless Charlie, who will do anything to save Wade, and William, who follows after his father in spite of his low opinion of him, and then winds up trying to save him, just as Charlie is determined to get Wade back. Both boys seek to help their father figures. Charlie does it through utter brutality and violence; William does it with intelligence and bravery. One of the boys is already pure evil; the other is on the cusp of manhood. This is the moment of decision for both of them – and that’s why one lives, and the other must die.
Total Control: most movies have over the top villains, since actors don’t realize that the most terrifying bad guy is a quiet, calm, and totally secure evil. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, it’s not particularly flashy, but it still accomplishes its purpose. Here, we have two such characters – Ben Wade, who is so bored in his evil that he’s downright complacent, and Charlie, who doesn’t blink twice about shooting people. Wade’s sense of humor and calmness lure you into a sense of false security, and just when you start to like him – he kills someone, or tosses them off a cliff, or kicks them in the face… just to remind you who he really is. Furthermore, he wanted to get caught simply for his own amusement. There’s never a moment when he is not being “entertained” by events unfolding around him. It’s a game to him, and it ceases being a game only when he discovers that Evans is too honorable to play by Wade’s rules.
Honor: in the end, the story is really all about doing what is right in spite of the consequences. Evans chooses to take Wade to the station when no one else will – when everyone else has been gunned down in the street. He knows he’s going to die, and he does it anyway… even after Wade tries to bribe him to let him go, and after he tries to incapacitate (kill?) him halfway there. Evans dies becoming his son’s hero – and doing what he said he would do. His life is given in exchange for an act of bravery. So what does Wade do? Even though he doesn’t have to, even though he’s free, he gets on that train, so that Evans’ family will get the money the Pinkerton promised them.
The Ambiguities: a truly smart film never gives the audience all the answers, it asks them to reach their own conclusions. Most movies pander to mass stupidity and provide black and white reasons, but this one doesn’t. We never know what motivates the intense loyalty of Charlie, except through one provocative statement: “You forget what he’s done for us.” The film never tells us what Wade did to earn this unfailing loyalty. It doesn’t solve all its own mysteries but instead asks us to solve them ourselves.
The Ending: this is a point of contention between audiences, but I like that it’s shocking, horrifying, and ambiguous. Charlie kills Evans… and Wade kills Charlie and the rest of his gang. Why? Well, the movie doesn’t flat out tell us – and I like that. But you can tell a lot through the eyes of the actors. Wade’s eyes are misty and full of disgust when he pulls out Charlie’s revolver and shoots him with it. So, what conclusions might we reach? There’s not just one! Had Dale and Wade become friends? Had Wade finally found a godly man so he felt this death was undeserved and required punishment? Did he realize that as long as Charlie was alive, he was trapped in the life of a criminal? Was his only way out to kill them all? Or is it a validation of what he told William earlier, that “I wouldn’t last five minutes leading an outfit like that if I wasn’t rotten as hell”? I love the moment when William trains a gun on him… and doesn’t shoot. Wade waits to be shot. He expects it. He deserves it – and William lets him go, because William has chosen the man he is going to be – his father; a good man.
Good thinking man’s movies are hard to come by. Who knew I’d find one in a western?