Cruel men in a pitiless terrain
There is a short but high-quality list of Australian Westerns or, if you prefer, Australian takes on the Western. Certainly the harsh desert locations, conflict with the indigenous population, fight for survival, hardship, outlaws and violence are all features of both US and Australian history. There is also a list, growing longer, of quality Australian films that deal with the country’s origins and the search for an identity, dwelling in particular on the nineteenth or early twentieth century – films like Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Getting of Wisdom. The Proposition belongs on both lists.
This movie, which intersperses extreme violence with lyrical longing, is written by Nick Cave, narrative songwriter extraordinaire. I don’t know if Mr. Cave had read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian but I suspect that he might have. The Proposition has a similar arid tone of casual violence from cruel men in a pitiless terrain.
The acting is excellent, especially of Ray Winstone as an English police captain out to civilize this barbarous land, whose character develops from ruthless brutishness to sensitive decency. Equally good is Danny Huston (son of John, grandson of Walter) who plays the high-talking psychopath with charm and poetry in his soul, bushranger Arthur Burns. Roger Ebert draws a parallel between Burns and the judge in Blood Meridian.
This gun-pointing seems a popular pose
(By the way, Danny Huston also tells a great story on the making-of DVD. He says his father, on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, breathlessly said to Humphrey Bogart, “I think we’re making something special here.” Bogie replied, “Oh, shut up, John. It’s just a Western.”)
The eponymous proposition is pitiless in itself. The police will hang Charlie Burns’s young brother Mikey unless Charlie finds and kills the eldest one, Arthur.
The photography is by Frenchman Benoît Delhomme. It’s stunningly good. It’s the first of his work I’ve seen. While the base color of a classic American Western is red or orange, and that of an Italian-Spanish Western an olive gray, the dominant tone of this Australian one is yellow. It is weird to see Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, the cop Exley from LA Confidential) riding, looking very like Clint, past a real butte in what looks like a lemon Arizona.
As with so many films these days, the costumes, set design, make-up and props are superb. The overall impression is of dirt, heat and coarseness. Emily Watson plays the police captain’s bourgeoise wife, serving tea from porcelain, growing red roses in a garden marooned in the desert and trying desperately to maintain decorum in a frankly barbaric land.
John Hurt is in it, as a bounty hunter, and is actually quite good for once. Of course he overacts but he manages a morbidly interesting character. He was in five Westerns and poor in all of them, especially in Wild Bill and Heaven’s Gate. This movie was about his best Western.
Hurt not awful
There’s a great very short scene where a red stage coach crosses the screen and you suddenly realize it has ‘Royal Mail’ rather then ‘Wells, Fargo’, written on it, and it is pulled by four camels. The opening shot is of the Burns boys holed up in a tin shack being shot at and the bullets ripping through letting sunlight pour in, like some nineteenth century Leung Chi Wo. It’s a quotation, of course, as Westernistas will know, but a good one.
Light through bullet holes
“All the characters in the film are victims,” says Huston. Actually, perhaps they are all victims save one, the odious town boss Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) who is the only one to get off scot free.
The music is by Nick Cave, obviously, with Warren Ellis, and is very good. Two years later the pair did the music for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
This is a first class Western, lyrical, poetic, violent, thought-provoking, with interesting characters with whom we sympathize (well, most of them). It is a murder ballad. It is a tale of brotherly love.