The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, June 15, 2006

MOVIE REVIEW - The Proposition

Full review behind the jump

The Proposition
: John Hillcoat
: Nick Cave
: Chris Brown, Chiara Menage, Jackie O’Sullivan, Cat Villiers
: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Richard Wilson, Emily Watson, David Wenham, John Hurt, Robert Morgan

The older brother (Danny Huston) loves his younger brothers, and is murderously insane. The youngest brother (Richard Wilson) loves his older brothers, and is too simple to cope with the world away from their protection. The middle brother (Guy Pearce) loves them both, and may have to choose which of them lives or dies. That’s the fiendish dilemma at the heart of
The Proposition, a bleak, bloody and captivating film that transports the trappings and themes of the Spaghetti Western Epic to the Australian Outback of the 19th Century.

Like Peter Weir’s
Picnic at Hanging Rock, it recognizes something awesome in the wild landscapes of the Outback. It sees the stones and trees as having a menacing wisdom, a memory of an Earth born not from love but from fire. The pulsing echo of that memory, it seems, can sink under the skin of men, and push them beyond their feeble constraints. When Police Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) insists “I will civilize this place!”, his words seem more wretched and hollow when he repeats them, and we feel sorrier for him.

Australian-born rocker Nick Cave of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provides both the screenplay and the soundtrack, and the two are nihilistic peas in a pod. Under the direction of John Hillcoat the film achieves a kind of riveting despair, propelling itself towards hell on horseback.

The story goes that spaghetti Western filmmaking master Sergio Leone said the following about plucking Clint Eastwood from B-movie obscurity and making him a star: “Michelangelo saw a block of marble and said, ‘That's my David!'; I saw Clint and said, ‘That's my block of marble!’” In The Proposition it falls to Guy Pearce to be the block of marble, a cipher who nonetheless can hold the center of the screen with the threat of his violence. He’s no Clint Eastwood, but he’s good enough. We know little about this Charlie Burns, except that he is smarter than his younger brother Mike, and saner than his older brother Arthur. The three rode together with a gang until things got out of control and a frontier family was slaughtered – the pregnant wife raped before she died.

Charlie and Mike split from Arthur, but the townspeople still want blood, so in an attempt to keep the peace, it is Captain Stanley who proposes the titular bargain. He captures the two younger brothers and holds Mike, promising to hang him by Christmas unless Charlie rides into the Outback and brings back Arthur, whom Stanley has correctly identified as the true threat.

Arthur, given the right blend of charisma and sociopath cruelty by Huston, lives up in the hills with the remnants of his gang – the Aborigines say he has turned into a dog. He squats and stares at the horizon with a mix of expectation and wonder, as if he came to the world’s end in the hope that someone will meet him here from the other side. Charlie sets out on his road to find him, and like any good road to damnation it’s got a bar along the way with John Hurt in it.

Hurt is a treasure among eccentric supporting actors. Every year the lines seem to cross his face in more impossible zigs and zags, and his voice wheezes like a hundred-year-old steam engine. The more I tell you about his brief but unforgettable character is the more you don’t get to discover and delight in on your own, so I will end my description.

And back in town, the Captain tries to balance the bloodlust of his underlings and neighbors – even his wife (Emily Watson) burns with grief over the death of her friend –with the growing sense that he’s got the most innocent of the Burns brothers in his jail cell. The movie is clever in that it first presents him to us as the antagonist holding Damocles’ Sword over Charlie’s head, but then as it pulls back to show us the town he’s charged to protect, we see his own head is not so safe and he knows it.

Something in this mix will have to give, and leave bodies littered on the stage. The movie is a veritable buffet of violent acts – some fast and brutal, some slow, some odd and delivered with a suddenness that’s almost precious. There’s flies everywhere, swarming dead and live characters alike. With doom so ready in a land like this, I suppose there’s little reason for the insects to distinguish.

The Proposition does what the great spaghetti Westerns did – it digs into the dust and offal and the lurid behavior of larger-than-life scoundrels and finds tragic poetry. And even as its final confrontation approaches with breakneck energy it finds the space to be languid, and let the land overwhelm us.


Post a Comment

<< Home