Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, Richard Wilson
|It seemed almost painfully ironic to see "The Proposition", an Australian Western written by musical poet Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, on the same day that Desmond Turner was arrested in Indianapolis for his alleged mass killing of four adults and three children in an apparent robbery gone awry.
Feeling numbed by the senseless brutality of the killings here in Indianapolis, the idea of seeing "The Proposition" was unappealing at the very least. Westerns, by their very nature are prone to scenes of violence, disrespect, senselessness and the graphic illustration of how the West was really won.
"The Proposition" is not your standard issue Western. It is dirty and grimy and gritty and senseless and, in the midst of it all, stunningly beautiful and poetic and mystical and, yes, even occasionally funny. "The Proposition" is, without a doubt, the best Western since "Unforgiven" and, quite possibly, even better than that Oscar-winning film from Clint Eastwood.
For you see, despite all its grittiness and violence and brutality, "Unforgiven" is still amazingly accessible to general audiences. The grittiness in "Unforgiven" is a product of design not nature, and its violence, on whatever level violence can do so, makes sense.
"The Proposition" doesn't make sense. It doesn't seek to understand or explain or justify or evoke a response of any type. The grittiness of "The Proposition" is a product of both the natural brutality of the Australian Outback and those who first attempted to tame it in the 1880's. The characters we are presented are not painted with broad strokes of sympathy or hatred or evil. They are presented in their natural states that vacillate between desperation, denial, compassion and conviction. Cave's script is written in such a way that it doesn't matter whether or not you like these characters or identify with them...what matters is that you seem them the way they really are, a purpose made more convincing by Cave's exquisitely rich dialogue and inherently brilliant instincts related to character development and human relationships.
"The Proposition" begins ever so quietly as we listen to Cave's sparse score playing softly behind sepia images of aboriginal trappers, then government troops then, with little fanfare, the bodies of the Hopkins family lying stately across their beds as if dressed for Sunday church. Quickly, we learn of the true depravity of this crime by The Burns Gang, a somewhat motley gang led by three brothers who seem more united by their hatred of humanity than any familial bonds.
The film opens, really opens, with a shoot-out that results in the capture of two of the brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and 14-year-old Mikey (Richard Wilson) by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a lawman sworn to create a "civilized" outback. Captain Stanley knows, however, that his real target escaped capture, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). As long as Arthur is free, Captain Stanley knows that there will be no civilized Outback.
The proposition? Stanley agrees to spare the lives of both Charlie and Mikey if Charlie agrees to track down Arthur and kill him. Stanley astutely recognizes an ever so slight touch of humanity within Charlie that will allow him to place protecting the young Mikey over the life of his senselessly brutal older brother.
With such a basic storyline, it would be easy to dismiss "The Proposition" as yet another paint-by-numbers Western. Largely due to Cave's literary clarity, "The Proposition" transcends its basic plot and, quite literally, explodes on-screen as we watch a hypnotic dance of desperation and devastation manifest time and time and time again.
In their third collaboration, Hillcoat and Cave have clearly developed an immense trust of each other's visions. This trust is evident constantly throughout "The Proposition" in the quietness of certain moments, the gestures of certain characters, the silence that invades at the most unexpected times, and the perfectly timed capturing of cinematic poetry in both sublime sunsets and sickening acts of violence.
The cast, too, is stunning across the board in what feels like their innate ability to capture both the spoken and unspoken languages being communicated.
Ray Winstone again proves himself one of today's best actors, with a performance that aches and haunts and screams and comforts. Winstone's Captain Stanley is a man of conviction who is neither sympathetic nor horrible. He is, in some ways, merely going through the motions of this life he has chosen for himself and his wife (Emily Watson). He is both consumed by his work and fiercely devoted to protecting the genteel, civilized nature of his wife.
Likewise, Emily Watson is absolutely stunning in portraying a woman whose genteel nature is a mask she chooses to wear. Watson, practically a master at portraying women of uncommon gentleness with a simmering underbelly, captures convincingly a woman whose denial allows her to attempt, at times humorously, a perfect "garden" home in the far from picturesque Outback. Watson's scenes when she learns the full details of the Hopkins attack, are painful yet understated and authentic.
Not to be outdone, Guy Pearce is nearly unrecognizable as the slightly human Charlie Burns. Pearce adds just a touch of humanity to Charlie, but it's a touch that avoids sentimentality. It is, in essence, only enough to add a complexity to Charlie that makes him unpredictable. Will he truly kill his brother? Will he simply escape and rejoin his family? Will he find a way to protect Mikey? As portrayed by Pearce, Charlie is seemingly capable of any of these things and yet we're never given enough of a glimpse inside his wounded psyche that one can truly predict the outcome of the events that begin to unfold.
At first, it appears that the character of Mikey is more weakly developed. As played by Richard Wilson, Mikey is given little to do beyond being fearful and terrified. Wilson's Mikey is truly a young boy who seems caught up in a life he truly doesn't comprehend. He is possibly "slow," and it is clear that Charlie is fiercely devoted to protecting him. It is his character that comes closest to evoking an audience response, and it is nearly impossible to not reach the conclusion that this young boy has truly been victimized by nearly every human being he encounters from his own family to his captors.
In supporting roles, David Wenham shines as an intrusive superior to Captain Stanley, while John Hurt offers yet another in a long line of brilliant performances as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb. In the first encounter between Jellon and Charlie, the action bounces between lightly comical and frighteningly intense in a matter of seconds. Strong supporting performances are also turned in by Tom Budge, David Gulpilil and Robert Morgan in remarkably developed and convincing smaller roles.
"The Proposition" was actually filmed in the Outback, and Benoit Delhomme's cinematography captures the true beauty of this relatively undeveloped nature while never losing sight of its brutality. The scenes of violence, while intensely graphic, are never gratuitous. Again, they feel as if they are simply birthed out of their natural state.
"The Proposition" received twelve 2005 Australian Film Institute nominations, including recognition for Pearce, Winstone, Hurt and Hillcoat. The film captured four awards for its excellent costuming, score, cinematography and production design. Much like with the Oscars this year, the AFI's had two strong contenders in this film and the Best Feature winning "Look Both Ways," another brilliant film.
"The Proposition" isn't the type of film you will necessarily love. It's dirty and ugly and hateful and real. It was, in fact, the perfect film for me to see on a day when Indianapolis was shaken to its core by utterly senseless acts against humanity. Violence doesn't make sense, and it's not glossy and stylish and clean like many films would like us to believe.
No, violence is often borne out of who we really are. Many times, violence is simply an inherently interwoven part of who we are. It is the way we relate, the way we serve, the way we react and the way we claim to love.
"The Proposition" may be one of the most realistic portrayals of how the West was really won, or it may simply be absolute proof that after all these years the West has never really been won. Either way, "The Proposition" is a film you simply will not forget.
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic