I've been waiting since January to see The Proposition, an Australian western penned by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (who also directed Cave's other screenplay, Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead). Seldom does a film generate the kind of interest The Proposition has based solely on the screenwriter, but then, seldom does a film have as a screenwriter an artist the likes of Nick Cave. The Proposition is a bleak and violent film, and yet in spite of that, manages to be both poetic and philosophical. This is a western, yes, but not so much of the shoot-em-up variety.
The story Cave and Hillcoat paint is about conflict and contrast: Wilderness and civilization; destruction and justice; and the fine line men walk between civility and violence. The film is set in the late 19th century Australian Outback, a time rife with unchecked violence, outlaws hiding in the wilderness, vengeful posses, and hard justice; it was a tough life carving civilization out of wildness, and Hillcoat captures well the tension and sense of violence lurking around every turn.
The film centers around the interconnected stories of two men, Captain Maurice Stanley (Ray Winstone), who has been sent to the Outback to tame its land and people, and Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), the middle of a notorious trio of brothers who lead a violent gang, most recently responsible for "the Hopkins outrage" -- the horrific rape and murder of a pregnant woman, and her husband and young child. The residents of Banyon, the makeshift nearby settlement where Captain Stanley mans the jail and military police, want vengeance. But when Captain Stanley captures two of the brothers, Charlie and youngest brother Mikey (not yet out of his teens and none too bright), he offers Charlie a chilling proposition: If he doesn't go out and find and kill his sociopathic older brother, Arthur, who is the ringleader of the gang, young Mikey (Richard Wilson) will hang. Charlie reluctantly agrees.
As interesting as that storyline is, what most fascinates about this film is the way Cave's brilliant and intelligent script contrasts Captain Stanley and Charlie to show the fine line between seeking justice and becoming as bad as the injustice you're fighting against. Stanley wants desperately to civilize this wild and desolate place in which he finds himself and his cultured wife, Martha (Emily Watson), stranded. Determined to retain some semblance of culture and dignity, Stanley has made his homestead a fortress of British civilization, complete with English garden, china tea set and white picket fence. When he walks through the gate to his home, Stanley becomes the man he is inside and wants to be outside: A cultured man, with a cultured and lovely wife wearing beautiful gowns and serving him tea. Outside his home, he must become a tough lawman on the dangerous, barren frontier, working with men who are largely base, lewd and uncultured, while keeping the natives and rowdy lawless in line.
Martha, more china doll in the wilderness than frontiers-woman, struggles to maintain culture and civilization amidst dust and a veritable plague of flies, even as she chafes against her husband's desire to protect her from the violent nature of his work. She rides her carriage into town, the only well-dressed woman among the dusty, dirty homesteaders, and seems remarkably fragile and out of place -- an exterior view than belies her inner strength. She sees, more than anyone, the toll the duality of his job takes on her husband, and she wants to share in his burden. The woman raped and murdered by the Burns gang, Eliza Hopkins, was Martha's friend, and when she learns her husband is holding one of the gang in his jail, she, too, seeks blood retribution; the desire for vengeance has no class lines or boundaries, then or today.
Charlie, on the trail of his brother, stops at the Hopkins homestead, walking slowly through the scene of the carnage he was a part of, pausing before pushing open a door that leads to a room with an empty cradle. Charlie loves his brother, but it seems he has at least a semblance of a conscience, and he is tired of the senseless violence that has led to his baby brother being held in jail under threat of being hanged. Charlie seeks to be free of violence, but the irony he faces is that before he can be free, he must spill one brother's blood in order to save the other.
Incredible music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three) augments the story, with traditional folk tunes and Ellis's whirling-dervish violin carrying things along and setting tone. It's not surprising that a film involving Cave would have music as an integral part, and indeed, the music in this film does far more than provide background noise. The cinematography in the film is simply fantastic, capturing both the beauty and bleakness of the isolated setting. You can't have a good film without good acting, though, and this film is blessed with some marvelous performances. Winstone conveys perfectly Stanley's struggle to stay moral and clean amidst filth and immorality, and Watson, who is solid as she always is, adds layers of nuance to what could have been a window-dressing role. Guy Pearce, barely recognizable beneath scraggly hair and layers of dirt, is spot-on as the torn and deeply conflicted Charlie. Danny Huston chills as the sociopath Arthur, who is himself a study in contrast. Simultaneously educated and coarse, Arthur quotes poetry, appreciates beautiful music, and has a deeply tribal sense of family, but at the same time he is capable of tremendous unchecked violence and has no conscience at all about hurting people outside his tribe.
Intelligent writing, beautiful filmmaking and solid performances put The Proposition head-and-shoulders above the pack of indie films showing at festivals this year. I expect it will end up being one of my favorite films at SIFF.Read Martha's take on The Proposition.