“Christmas, as you're probably aware, is fast approaching. And Christmas, this year, will hold a unique significance for young Micky, here.”
“Because on Christmas Day, I have made plans that he be taken from the jail in Banyon and hanged by the neck ... until he is dead.”
And so begins the proposition that Ray Winstone's beleaguered Outback policeman, Captain Stanley, puts to Guy Pearce's captured rogue Charlie Burns, as they sit inside a dusty tin shack so shot full of holes that it resembles a sieve. In a nutshell, he offers a full pardon for Charlie and his simpleton younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), if Charlie will go forth into the wilderness, seek out and then kill their psychotic older brother Arthur, played by Danny Huston. He's got until Christmas Day to perform the task, or poor injured Mikey, who will remain in custody as a guarantee, will swing from the noose. And, thus, we are caught on the hook of John Hillcoat's gripping Aussie oater, a tale of dark deeds and even darker intentions at a time and place in history that movies have long neglected - the searing, amoral desolation of Australia's filthy colonial wasteland of the 1880's. Written with gritty eloquence by musician Nick Cave, The Proposition only recently opened in UK cinemas and has yet to reach the States but, with tremendous critical acclaim and an award or two to bolster its reputation, the film marks an impressive entry in the revisionist horse opera genre. That Australia had its fair share of Western-style antics during this period - the lawlessness of the landscape versus the corrupt and bigoted migration of the dregs from a dozen wasted societies mirroring the pioneer days of America's frontier to a remarkably similar degree - throws itself open to the grim and dusty cowboy genre with considerable gusto. The setting, and the accents, may be different - but the result of hard-bitten, weather-beaten folk eking out a rancid existence amid a scorched land that seems to leak violence from every crack and fissure, is exactly the same. Carry a gun, trust no-one (least of all, your own kin) and always watch your back.
“One more crack about the Irish, Mr. Lamb ... and I'll shoot yer.”
With only their second major movie collaboration, the first being the prison drama Ghosts Of The Civil Dead (1988), Hillcoat and Cave weave a gently-paced opera of despair, wilful cruelty and the forsaking of the soul. Don't look for redemption here, as any fan of Nick Cave and his band, The Bad Seeds, will tell you. There is pain, suffering and torment aplenty wrapped up in this quasi-Kane and Abel riff, the script a deceptively leisurely amble through the scrub-lands of a forgotten colony's dark heart. Cave's writing is strong and laden with ominous overtones, and his characterisation is highly impressive. All of a sudden his failed script for Gladiator 2 doesn't sound so bizarre, after all. Set in and around the lost shanty town of Banyon, where Englishman Captain Stanley has come with the misguided intentions of bringing civilisation, The Proposition pulls no punches in its depiction of a breed of man that seems to enjoy the hostile degradations of his surroundings. Everyone is covered in dirt and flies crawl all over their backs. The local tolerance for the native aborigines is based purely on how many they can kill or subjugate, and the attitude to maintaining law and order from Stanley's inept bully-boy policemen is one of lazy arrogance and surly insubordination. Initially, even Stanley seems to be someone to fear, his unkempt and dishevelled appearance belying the sincere intentions of his mission to bring a little slice of England to this despicable land. When we meet him and the proposition is offered, he is already at the end of his tether - or else why would he make such a deadly pact with such heinous criminals? The Burns gang have already split apart, with the poetic-yet-volatile Arthur continuing to rampage across the area, committing unthinkable brutalities on the rare good folk who, just like Stanley and his sweet and proper wife Martha (Emily Watson), have decidedly ventured too far into the badlands. With pressure forced upon him to act swiftly and with righteous severity by his superiors, in the form of the wily racist town overseer Eden Fletcher, adroitly essayed by David (Faramir) Wenham, he ends up playing devil's advocate in a power-play that will swing awful retribution back upon his doorstep as the season of good will shatters all around them. As Captain Stanley, Ray Winstone is excellent, despite being sometimes saddled with that gruff bent for highly literate speech that seems somehow unbelievable for a hard-fighting lawman in such a Godforsaken place. But, then again, maybe only well-read men like him would dare to wander into this “fresh Hell”, as he christens it, in the first place, to ease the burden of their knowledge by distributing it among the heathens. Much the same can be said for John Hurt's deliriously loopy bounty hunter, Jellon Lamb, who seems to straddle abstract prose and professional zeal like a poet of the apocalypse. Just listen to his addled diatribe against Darwin's Theory of Evolution. His performance here is a terrific antidote to his fascist rhetoric in V For Vendetta. Though only in two scenes, he still manages to bring a glorious mania to the film which, without his rambling cackles, would be in danger of drowning in its own nihilism.
“Dan O'Reilly had so many spears in him that he resembled your good old, garden variety, English hedgehog.”
Conjuring up the amorality of Leone's west, but giving its visual lyricism a meaner edge, exquisitely scraping away at the overblown image of the bushranger, the outlaw and the policeman, Hillcoat paints the film all the colours of seedy. There is a dark magic at play in the slowly-cooked pace - that crawls by like the incessant flies pock-marking the characters, allowing the flashpoints of ultra-violence a shockingly raw immediacy - its melancholy tone becoming an intoxicating cocktail of the macabre and the absurd. Employing sumptuous photography from Benoit Delhomme to spread the Outback across the screen in a swirl of orange, red and yellow, an ochre landscape of squalor, pestilence, dust and blood that is, nevertheless, a breathtaking joy to behold. Hillcoat's compositions are spectacular, his use of twilight and pre-dawn shade absolutely ravishing. Many scenes play out against the horizon amid a suffusion of coloured shadow. The vast skies have a preternatural sheen, vibrantly exciting above the grimy foulness roiling below, and there are some majestic shots of characters on the high rocks etched in lovingly crisp and iconic silhouette. The film is as much about the significance of the land as it is about the corruption of man, though the spirituality of the piece sometimes has no greater meaning other than to set the scene and the mood. There is a sense that both Hillcoat and Cave set out to say something more, something deeper about the mistreatment of the aborigines and their sacred domain, yet apart from serving up a tribal cull here (thankfully, we only see the aftermath) and a jeering roundup of hill-dwellers there, their presence, like much of the film's primary observations about the twisting of the human soul, is so utterly bathed in ambivalence that any real message is lost amid the dust.
“Only five more days to go, Mikey...”
The film is also clearly an odyssey. Ostensibly, it is Guy Pearce's Charlie who makes the journey, in a moody manner reminiscent of his turn in the underrated Ravenous. He makes the voyage of discovery that reveals the true barbarity of his older brother, meets John Hurt's wonderfully cryptic and deranged collector of human detritus, and makes the decisions that will steer the sweeping hand of fate across his own family. Yet he doesn't so much propel the story as meander through it, his odyssey becoming a quest that renders him partially redundant for stretches of the film. Pierce is good in the role, but I feel he has been short-changed by a screenplay that seems as though it has misplaced some of his adventure. Much better value is Danny Huston's wildcard Arthur, whose acts of depravity are balanced out with a unique devotion to family, literature and free-spirit. The son of the great John Huston, he imbues the renegade with a tremendous presence that is at once frighteningly unpredictable and vulnerably fragile. Again though, the screenplay appears to favour an almost supernatural element to his persona in that the local aborigines regard him as having the characteristics of a dog, holding him up in awe and wary respect. Just how all this came about is never made clear and, sadly, the spiritual side of his looming presence quickly evaporates once we meet him. But it is still an electrifying performance, especially once the tables have been turned and the conventional good guy/bad guy roles have been reversed. For this is where Cave's script excels, eschewing the natural order of the classic westerns where the moral divide couldn't have been more clearly drawn. In fact, in character, he finds more familiar ground with the stark, brute force identity of Peckinpah's emotionally bereft, end-of-the-trail rogues than he does with even Leone's anti-heroes-with-heart. In many ways, the worst acts that we see on-screen are perpetrated by the so-called law, and it is a bold and clever step to have us literally cheering their grisly comeuppance. Some throwaway shots of quite startling butchery are sure to linger.
“To be speared by a savage ... how extraordinarily quaint.”
Of course, the main odyssey, as will become clear, is the one that Captain Stanley goes through. The landscape may be harsh, but that's no excuse for the wanton despicability that its population harbours. Racism, as ever, plays a huge part in the scheme of Outback life and death, making a very relevant stamp of disapproval on Australia's bitter legacy. Stanley has a mission, an agenda beyond that of merely attempting to keep the peace - the suppression of the natives - and it is in no way hidden. But, after his tough and uncompromising introduction - all pistol-whipping and almost religious crusading with his “I will civilise this land!” rant - he opens up to the red-baked wilderness, finding an ambiguity to his motives that frightens and transforms him. Stanley is a difficult character to play - tired, used-up and fighting the disillusionment and apathy he faces at every turn, yet still full of vigour and misguided obsession - but Winstone has built up a sizeable body of work capitalising on noble thugs to fall back on, and manages to find enough heart and soul to make this maverick copper sympathetic. His efforts to keep the casual violence of this new world from his wife are doomed from the outset. They live in a substantial ranch out of town, but caging poor Martha up like a canary and forbidding her to come to his place of work cannot quell her fascination for the terrifying truths stalking along the horizon. The unseen, but all-pervading, massacre of an innocent family hangs over the entire story like a savage cloud of evil. Emily Watson portrays Martha's frantic need to know the details of this atrocity as a means to highlight the pitiless environment into which their manners and their sense of civilisation have so foolishly intruded. Their relationship is poignant and morose, almost as though they both anticipate something awful just around the corner. It is also telling and almost comically ironic that Stanley is accused of acting like a judge and jury firstly by Charlie Burns and then by his own superior, Fletcher - the two opposing forces in the territory that are hauling the lost lawman in half. Theirs is, by far, the most accurate and better written saga in the entire compelling drama. It is the things that go unsaid, or are almost said, that have you caring for these ill-equipped voyagers, with their finery, their Christmas tree and their turkey.
“I had an idea about justice and ... for the town, for the country ... for you. For you. And now ... I don't know.”
David Wenham's bureaucratic fop has taken some flack for what has been considered a stereotypical role, but I would have to disagree. He reveals a cold heart that his effete mannerisms and stiff upper lip cannot mask. “When you kill one of them, you make bloody sure that you kill them all,” he commands Captain Stanley, asserting his stance on the aboriginal uprising in the hills. Riding a startlingly white horse, his political and personal leanings may be a touch blatant, but then a rightwing bigot would hardly hide his persuasions before the denizens of a colony he sees as being beneath him. There's also a great, but small, performance from David Gulpilil, who I'm presuming is the same expressive actor who appeared in Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout and Peter Weir's The Last Wave, as Jacko, the turncoat native working for the police.
“I'm going to be with my brother ...”
An evil incantation of Rule Britannia, a righteous flogging that twists all notions of justice and revenge, heads kicked or spectacularly blown apart and a sense of quiet rage and despair that eats away at the soul of the film like the flies around a festering wound - welcome to the blighted land of The Proposition, an awesome, off-kilter Western relocation. Highly recommended.
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