Monday, July 03, 2006

Film: The Proposition

The Proposition
Written by Nick Cave
Directed by John Hillcoat

Nick Cave’s surly, mystical, white-trash magic realism was so easily applied to the landscape of my own observation that the notion of his having a landscape of his own to inspire his fevered visions never crossed my mind. His stories of retribution, mad love, gruesome death and implacable deities had the clear ring of the universal. Of course, the most universal art often emerges from artists telling their own stories, the stories of their own backyards, their own tribes. With Cave’s dazzling screenwriting debut, the grim, lyrical Aussie Western The Proposition, the whole spectrum of Cave’s work will now call to mind the baking Australian desert, the portentous hum of flies on a dead carcass (or its living observers), the piercing shame of colonialism, and the bottled discontent of exploited aboriginals.

Directed with stark delirium by John Hillcoat, The Proposition is built on the simplest of conceits. A lawman, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) makes captured outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) an offer he can’t refuse, sending him on a simple-but-gruesome errand for a simple-but-urgent reward: if he kills his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), Stanley won’t hang Charlie's younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson).

The plot is elemental, but the intricacies of the internal relationships lend the film a stealthy complexity. Rather than the hero, or even the antihero of the story, Charlie is the cipher; Pearce gives him gravitas, but he’s a mythical everyman in a story that indulges in mythological flourish even as it demythologizes its own particular history. Huston and Winstone do the heavy lifting, bringing poignancy and potency to their respective studies of damaged men. Emily Watson, as Stanley’s jittery wife, carries a tremendous thematic burden with aplomb; her comical displacement as a bourgeois wife in the unforgiving wilderness is as nuanced a portrayal as I’ve ever seen of the plight of the colonial wife, separated from her element and increasingly estranged from a husband who fights with every fiber to maintain justice, however convoluted his ideas definition thereof has become. And I won’t even try to explain John Hurt’s giddy cameo: it must be seen to be believed.

The Proposition isn’t for the faint of stomach. Even my desensitized constitution reeled a little when a man wrings blood out of a whip in the midst of a brutal—and revealing—flogging. As with many revisionist Westerns, the impunity with which men kill supersedes moral preoccupation; death relegates all victims to yet more rotting matter in a punishing wilderness. But for all of that, the movie still whispers, croaks and chants its way into the viewer’s consciousness, like Cave’s own muffled voice on the insinuating score, by Cave with longtime collaborator Warren Ellis (Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three). Cave may play the nihilist, but the key to his script, as to his music, is the tiny sliver of hope for redemption that still cries out from its dark, bloody heart.

Reviewed by thelyamhound, 494 words



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