Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Proposition: Hillcoat and Cave renovate the western, conjure devils in the outback, get spooky, poetic, violent as all hell

Set in the 1880s Australian outback, The Proposition shakes the dormant Western genre to life from its opening shoot-out, in which the ear-shattering pings of bullets perforating a tin shack echo amongst hysterical cries and bodies shudder below shafts of scalding sun in fear and maybe some kind of demented ecstasy. This is the colonial nightmare unfiltered, moulded by a loose but lean narrative shape and mined for the sort of savage poetry that allows us to recognize it as being very much about our conflicted human souls.

“I will civilize this place,” proclaims local authority Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) once this chaos subsides, revealing no hint of irony as he viciously pistol-whips whimpering young Mike Burns (Richard Wilson) and offers Mike’s older bother Charlie (Guy Pearce) the ultimatum of journeying into the godforsaken hills to assassinate eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or else condemn Mike to death: this is the cruel proposition of the title. The Burns clan are Irish outlaws in a lawless land, murderers and rapists the lot, and a smear on the dream of expanding the British Empire into this country otherwise inhabited solely by men regarded by the enlightened invaders as less than animals.

The Proposition is only the third feature in as many decades from director John Hillcoat, and it fits thematically into his small but distinctive body of work, intelligently dealing as it does with how the mechanics of state violence and control shape communities. As for writer Nick Cave, though he contributed to Hillcoat’s 1988 prison drama Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, The Proposition marks the proper screenwriting debut of singer-songwriter, and through this fresh collaboration the best in each becomes manifest. The work is both historically and politically sophisticated, and also infused with the Old Testament poetry and fatalistic romanticism that distinguishes Cave as one of the finest, most unapologetically literary lyricists alive (evident not only in Cave’s Joseph Conrad-inspired script but also in the whispery, eerily desolate score supplied by Cave and Bad Seed/Dirty Three violinist Warren Ellis).

There is a brutally clear beginning and end to The Proposition, bridged by a stream of evocative middle. With context and complexity of character supplying our sense of penetrating deeper into the film’s heart of darkness, atmosphere equals story here—what’s so memorable are often moments of reverie that linger between bursts of violence, details like the branches twisted into arthritic claws by sun and thirst, flies blanketing the backs of witnesses to an almost bleakly comical, seemingly endless public lashing, or the delicate surfaces of the fine china and English rose garden treasured by Stanley’s wife Martha (Emily Watson), the film’s lone woman and one source of its scattered moments of genuine tenderness.

No one’s left uncompromised yet neither is even the most aberrant character drawn without some trace of humanity, the marvellous cast deserving much credit. Winstone’s Stanley, red face and black eyes pinned down into glistening watermelon seeds, seems hopelessly numbed to human suffering but is consoled by Martha’s pride and the innocence he tries to maintain in her through keeping her isolated from the wretched town he oversees. Huston’s devil crouched in the wilderness seems to have no difficulty reconciling his acts of malice with his love of poetry, nature and the family that drives him literally to tears. And Pearce’s soul-drained searcher, tortured, resurrected, betrayed by his master and abandoned to an even deeper loneliness than is suffered by the others, is the actor at his finest, bringing a ragged humanity to an archetype rendered far more obliquely in the spaghetti westerns of the ’60s.

I can’t think of anything like
The Proposition out there these days—but then I’m not sure anyone ever made movies quite like this. It’s funny—and inspiring—how a dead genre can still bring out the best in some of our best filmmakers, Hillcoat, Jarmusch, Eastwood, et al.

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