"3:10 to Yuma" (2007) might be the first real 21st-century Western. The performances are complex and pathological, the production design is gritty and realistic, and the cinematography is artistically kinetic. Granted, it is not the first Western to be made this century, but it feels like the first of it's ilk that is indicative of 00's film making.
It should be noted that I have never seen the original "3:10 to Yuma" (1957), so if you are looking for a comparison of the two films, this is not the place. The modern film is based not only on the 1957 screenplay, but also upon the 1953 short story.
Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is a wounded Civil War veteran living on the frontier with his wive and two kids. They owe more money than they have, and the current drought is worsening matters. Evans sets off into town to settle his debts when he crosses paths with Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), a middle aged gang leader who's looking to get out of the thug life. This is the second time the two of them encounter each other in as many hours, as Evans had stumbled upon Wade's latest stagecoach heist in progress earlier that day. Wade is arrested, and Evans volunteers to escort him to the prison train, the titular 3:10 to Yuma. And so the film becomes a road picture.
Among its many stellar qualities, the acting is far and away the best element of "3:10 to Yuma". Leading the pack is Crowe's reflective posse leader, a portrayal that is perhaps the most quietly naturalistic in any western that this reviewer has seen (I have not seen many). This is not a good guy; he shoots a member of his own crew to keep the rest in line, and he repeatedly tries to escape from captivity on the road to the train station. He is not, however, the villain of the piece (that role is filled insanely by Ben Foster [pictured]). Wade might have been a good man had life dealt him a different hand. There is a gentleness to him under all those years of crime in the wild west, and he is beginning to embrace it.
Playing exact opposites of the morality spectrum are Bale and Foster, the latter of whom dives into the role of Wade's fanatical right hand man with firebrand precision. His Charlie Prince is the very definition of loyalty taken over the edge of sanity into the chasm of deranged, single-minded evil. He wantonly shoots civilians, burns people alive, all in the name of freeing his beloved Ben Wade. Bale's Dan Evans, on the other hand, is a good man just trying provide for this family. His performance is gritty and real, as always, but he is only here to act as mirror for Crowe's Ben Wade.
Rounding out the main cast are Alan Tudyk as the town doctor, Logan Lerman as Evans' eldest son, and an unrecognizable Peter Fonda as a grizzled veteran bounty hunter. Like Bale, but to perhaps even more of an extent, they are only here to help tell Ben Wade's story. This really is Russell Crowe's film, and he rides off into the sunset with it.