"Australia ... What fresh hell is this?"
When Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) utters these words in 'The Proposition,' he's staring over the arid wasteland of Australia in the late 19th century. His words speak to the land he must now live in and "civilize." It reflects the new techniques he must employ to capture the murderous Burns brothers. But it also speaks to the sheer beauty of the film.
By all accounts, 'The Proposition' is hell. It's dark, violent, and almost completely without hope. The people who live on that screen are dirty, helpless, fly-ridden, and morally strangled. Yet the film feels not only fresh, but beautiful. From that first moment we see the full landscape, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) standing on the mountain and looking out over the arid land, the film becomes a harsh, yet stunning, moving painting. Every moment being carefully selected to juxtapose beauty with misery, just as 'Requiem for a Dream,' which preceded it.
Many films manage to come up with those perfect, iconic moments that we remember forever -- visions that stun us and burn into our memories. But few films manage to not only create a full feature of stunning images, but also make this montage of images active. John Hillcoat's camera travels through each scene. While there are moments where we can control our gaze, the camera leads us. As Stanley brings the captured Mike Burns into town, we look into and out of the cage, and as the cage moves to the left, Stanley on his white steed rides to the right. Every part of the frame is used, from side to side, top to bottom. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme then comes in to find the moments of contrast, the ways to deepen and enrich a landscape that lacks much tonal contrast or depth -- whether it's with that white horse, or Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) drinking under the blue-grey stars.
When this visual style is mixed with the score concocted by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Hillcoat's film pushes away genre norms while never compromising on theme. Though there are no yee-haws, spurs, and American tumbleweeds, this is a western. It's 19th century life on horseback, gentility struggling to survive on relatively unknown terrain. There are heroes, villains, and antiheroes struggling with their definitions of honor and masculinity in the dusty, fly-ridden world. There are foreigners determined to "civilize" the natives. Yet 'The Proposition' never feels like old hat. The beauty sets up a new visual dynamic, while Cave's deep, purring voice offers a new sound to the genre that's fresh, but apt and never jarring.
It's this film I think of when discussions of 'Avatar' and cliched storytelling arise -- the ways any old and familiar tale can be reinvigorated, to the point where it will feel like we've never seen it before. The dichotomies that fuel this western stretch back before our time -- good versus evil, brother against brother, the heathens and the civilized -- but by trying to find the reality in them, the organic approach, each becomes infinitely fresh and thus infinitely more rewarding. And to think that Nick Cave wrote the feature in a matter of weeks.
There's a perfect moral ambiguity that runs through 'The Proposition.' The mystery isn't how the film ultimately plays out, but how it gets to that point. Right away, it's easy to note that though the Burns brothers are considered cold-blooded killers, there's a distinct difference between Arthur, Charlie, and young Mike. We see Charlie gingerly remove his hat when he enters a home to survey the evidence left behind after Arthur's murderous rampage. And even when we meet Arthur -- the worst of them all -- we seem him in a moment of weakness, worrying over Charlie's fate, before then being formally introduced to him as a light-of-heart man focused on family. He can rape and murder a family, but also cuddle with his dog.
That we see so much depth in these characters is as much a testament of Cave's and Hillcoat's talents as it is of the players who bring it to life. Guy Pearce imbibes his stoic character with a distinct humanity, though he plays his responses close to the vest. He has the ability to offer a feeling or thought in silence. Danny Huston perfectly employs his trademark smile to offer the charm of Arthur, but can turn it off in a moment and reveal the cold-hearted killer who also shares his body. John Hurt zips in and out to offer some verbose color, David Wenham's Eden Fletcher finds the perfect coldness in inadequacy, and finally, Ray Winstone's Captain Stanley captures the futility of being caught between the people who want vengeful justice and his own morals and safety.
But now onto your thoughts...
When I first saw this film at TIFF years ago. I was dragged in reluctantly, and came out a stunned fan. Did you have a similar experience -- did the film challenge your own notions of westerns? Or, do you feel that it missed the western mark?
Like 'Requiem,' 'The Proposition' seems to be a film that polarizes viewers into two camps -- those who can stomach the violence, and those who can't. Do you find it to be too much, or do you find the violence tempered by the story and visuals?
I once had a discussion about whether Huston was right for the role. Do you think he was the right casting choice?
A lot of classic western remakes are coming down the pike. Do you think that's the right move, or does the genre need to stick with something more like this film -- genre-bending rather than genre-typical?
In celebration of Jamie Lee Curtis hopping back on the big screen for 'You Again,' I thought we'd lighten things up a bit and go back to the film that earned the actress her first Golden Globe nomination.
Next Week's Film: 'A Fish Called Wanda' | Add it to your Netflix queue
Last Week's Film: 'The Evil Dead'