In the urgency of its head games, suspense and performances - all kept in the tightest of focus - Yuma is the sagebrush counterpart of The Departed.
Set in the Arizona territory after the Civil War in towns that have names like Contention, the film (based on an Elmore Leonard short story) opens as beleaguered rancher Evans, out herding cattle with his sons, is caught in the cross fire between the Wade Gang and the Pinkerton stagecoach delivering payroll to the Southern Pacific. Wade and his men - led by lieutenant Charlie Prince (Ben Foster, fierce in his loyalty and unconcealed love) - make off with the loot.
Lame from a war injury and lean from tough times, Evans literally is between rock and hard place. The railroad craves his property and its goons interfere with Evans' water supply and livelihood. In a prelude to what they plan to do to his homestead, they set fire to the Evans barn. Honorable but physically and economically inadequate, the unjolly rancher owes more money than he can possibly ever make.
To regain the respect of his wife (Gretchen Mol) and elder son, Will (Logan Lerman), who regard him with contempt and Wade with mesmerized respect, Evans stages what would seem to be his last stand. He signs on to help deliver Wade (arrested after staying too long with a barmaid) to the prison car of a train headed for the penitentiary town of the title.
Given that the righteous Evans possesses more honor than competence and that the proportions in nimble Wade are just the reverse, it doesn't look like an even match. But as the men - also accompanied by bounty hunter McElroy (Peter Fonda, grizzled and great) and railroad exec Butterfield (Dallas Roberts, blandly corporate) gallop West, the hairpin curves and switchbacks they encounter are not limited to the rocky trail.
Keenly photographed by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, Yuma keeps characters and conflicts in extreme close-up while thrilling in the majesty of the Western panorama. It is the first film from Mangold, best known for Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted (which garnered Oscars for Reese Witherspoon and Angelina Jolie), where the big picture has been as impressive as the individual performances.
The son of minimalist artist Robert Mangold and realist painter Sylvia Plimack, Mangold has an eye and a touch. Even during a protracted finale where human fish in a barrel manage to elude bullets, Yuma yields performances as elemental as the landscape while it questions a culture more concerned with money than human life.
3:10 to Yuma ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by James Mangold, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, with Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Logan Lerman and Gretchen Mol. Distributed by Lions Gate Films.
Running time: 2 hours
Parent's guide: R (brutal gunplay, visceral surgical procedure, profanity)
Playing at: Area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http:go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.