The Proposition (2005)

Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston

Directed by John Hillcoat

IMDB summary: "A lawman apprehends a notorious outlaw and gives him nine days to kill his older brother, or else they'll execute his younger brother."

Holy crap! The blood! The austerity! The sunsets!

Nick Cave, a la the Badseeds, wrote the screenplay to this, a love / hate portrait of his homeland, Australia. The opening credits featured a series of still photos from the heyday of colonization - the Old West of Down Under - but only after the film dramatized one particularly grisly image did I realize that those old-timey sepia-tones may have been fiction. Or maybe not. Because the movie began with a disclaimer that Australia's native peoples may find some of the photographs disturbing, I must assume that at least part of that opening montage was historic.

The difficulty in telling the difference between fact and fiction attests to two subjects: a) its authenticity, and b) how SHITTY life in colonial Australia must have been. I mean, REALLY. Some movies try to make their chosen locales appear more exotic or more appealing (I always think of Soderburgh's depiction of Detroit in Out of Sight - practically an enchanted honeymoon destination), but Hillcoat took the opposite approach. Every hopeless, depressed shot aims to illuminate the stark horror of that landscape, its desolation, and the grim determination (and resignation) of the white folks who come to populate it.

That said, through the unlikely eyes of the crazed murderer / philosopher Arthur Burns, the oldest of the three outlaw Burns brothers, viewers are given the gift of Australia's beauty and majesty. Even the Aboriginal characters do not express Arthur's grand appreciation for that bleak landscape. Cave's soundtrack became an integral part of his grudging respect, imbuing the film with a mystery and folklore that speaks of a deep admiration for the shithole life these colonists endured.

Guy Pearce's steady, intense presence underscored the desolation. He is a man of, oh - I don't know - about eight words, but as a testament to his acting chops, he reflects every one of the difficult contradictions of Cave's screenplay. John Hurt, however, stole the film. His brief, eight minute scene opposite Pearce is a marvel of charisma and cajones. Emily Watson looked appropriately pasty and out-of-sorts in her new home, and Ray Winstone - the hard cop who intended to civilize that wild place - manages to disintegrate before viewers' eyes, becoming less certain, less arrogant and more conflicted with every scene.

This is not an easy film to watch, nor are its multiple messages of fraternity, morality, redemption, crime & punishment, and national pride simple to discern. When American audiences think of Westerns, white hats are sure to figure in - if only as an homage to our folkloric past. Only in recent decades have we started to reconsider this image and revisit the hard facts of frontier existence. Cave's project suggests that Australia may be undergoing a similar historic reconsideration - and the history he has unearthed isn't pretty.


Jess said...

I've decided that I like this movie (Casey and I netflix-ed it last week) and I keep trying to wrap my brain around Emily Watson's character. Basically it comes down to the fact on deciding whether or not I think she was a truly tough woman or if she was in extreme denial. I absolutely loved Ray Winstone, though. I especially loved the fact that the more fudged things got, the more certain he was of his fate and how he became more resolved.

I actually enjoyed seeing a gritty western rather than the schlock that I'm normally exposed to, but there are still some things that I didn't quite get... like what was the deal with the dream?

This movie actually spawned a good, hour plus long discussion between Casey and I.

carrie_lofty said...

I loved the part with the dream, as well as the scene when the soldiers are talking about what they'd like to do with Captain Stanley's wife. Both served to muddle the narrative and seriously had me wondering where the story was headed. I like that sort of device, almost like a slice of life aspect in the middle of the larger moral drama.

Diva Kitty's Mom said...

I'll have to pop this on my queue. I've just finish watching Kinky Boots (hysterical)and Rome. Mr. Purefoy & CiarĂ¡n Hinds are my new gods. (Well, of course, they always were… it’s just worth repeating after seeing them in this series)