“Australia … what fresh hell is this?”
Late nineteenth century Australia seems to have been quite a hellish place indeed if we are to believe what Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have given us here. From the unflinching, seeming authenticity, the weight of conflicting emotion on the part of each and every human being portrayed, and the sheer beauty of it—pain, suffering, and all—I won’t be the one to dispute it.
I must admit that I have never seen a western before. None of the classics—John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sergio Leone, John Ford—even though I own a few and want to experience the genre, it just hasn’t happened yet. The closest I have come is the first two seasons of the magnificent “Deadwood” on HBO. If The Proposition is any indication of what I am missing, sign me up for a marathon now. Nick Cave has scripted a haunting ballad of a time left behind. Like his music with the Bad Seeds, the film is both brutal and lyrical at alternating and overlapping instances, yet if there is one thing that runs throughout, it’s honesty. This is the Australian outback at its’ hottest and most dangerous. Flies scurry across frame every second of the way, touching down on the sweat-soaked flesh of the people invading their space. Give credit to the actors, this isn’t a Hollywood film, the swarms are plenty and there is never a flinch or notice, even when one lands on a lip or eye. They are also real people and not clichés. When one character, fast asleep in his bedroom with pistol at close proximity, is awoken by a gunshot, he doesn’t rise with gun ready for action. Instead he jumps up, hand on gun, and goes full speed into the closed door, falling to the floor. This jolt knocks the lingering sleep from his head and he turns to tell his wife to stay put before opening the door and leaving. There is no humor in the scene, just the reality of fear quickening one’s actions to a higher speed than his lucidity.
As for the story, the Irish Burns brothers have been wreaking havoc in the outback. The three and their cohorts ride through towns partaking in murder and rape without a second thought, until one instance wakes Charlie to discover the nightmare he is in. Charlie, played to stoic perfection by Guy Pearce, takes his younger brother away from the carnage only to be soon found by local British authorities, led by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). A proposition is then struck that Charlie has nine days until Christmas, nine days to find his brother Arthur, (Danny Huston), to kill him and end the hellish trail of death he leaves in order to save his younger sibling from the noose. Charlie agrees as he has taken his brother out of the life to save him; he must do what he can to keep that dream alive. The journey begins: a quest for redemption, for penance, or maybe to join Arthur again and lead a charge for rescue.
Flanking Pearce, (his Till Human Voices Wake Us has been on my to see list for almost 5 years now, if anyone has seen it please let me know how it is), are two amazing performances by Winstone and Huston; both wear their emotions on their sleeves. Huston is an intelligent, educated, yet sadistic man. He does whatever he needs to and at night stares out into the distance, a look of wildness etching the contours of his face. Is he thinking about his deeds with an anger keeping him awake at night or about what atrocities he will commit tomorrow? One compatriot asks later in the film if they are misanthropes, if they hate humanity—Huston’s answer is “Lord no, we’re family.” Caring for his own blood is all the humanity he needs. Winstone’s captain is the opposite. He is a just man, trying to civilize a wild country. Trying to balance the cold stare needed to accept the violence he inflicts with the compassion necessary to hide it when confronting his wife is heartwrenching. Every emotion is flashing behind his eyes, sometimes he must do what is right, and not “just”, and others he must do what is necessary for the overall good.
The supporting roles are also superb as John Hurt supplies a nice turn as a bounty hunter out looking for the Burns clan and Emily Watson is unforgettable as the captain’s wife. Her character is on the fringe of all the happenings going on, but when she slowly finds herself discovering the truth, her performance really shines. A gorgeous example is a scene where she is describing a dream to her husband, the camerawork is magical—as it is throughout the movie—and the composition of shots lend the tale even more emotion by shielding us from her face as she recites.
This film cannot be critiqued without mention of the haunting score by Cave and Warren Ellis. Music enhances each scene it is used in. Gorgeous strings and piano mixed with hard, driving guitar create mood and tension. Even the use of traditional Celtic melody works perfectly. The juxtaposition of Peggy Gordon with the visuals it is overlaid on is stirring. Nick Cave has bridged his dark storytelling from albums like Murder Ballads and Let Love In seamlessly to the big screen. Our emotions are amped up as we journey through the rollercoaster ride of feelings. If you have seen Wim Wenders’ poetic Wings of Desire and remember the two scenes in the music clubs where the angel first meets his love and next seeks her out in human form, all to driving rock beats, you will know what I mean by music creating a powerful hold. You will also know then that the second band used is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. His music has had a strong grip for almost two decades in cinema.
There are usually around three or so movies a year that I feel are perfect or close to it. These are movies that will stay with me days later in contemplation, ones that are hard to wait for DVD in order to experience again. It is then a rare pleasure to see two such films in the span of a week. Unfortunately it appears that The Proposition’s run here in Buffalo has come to a premature end after only one week. When it is released on DVD do yourself a favor and check it out. Who knew dirt, sweat, graphic violence, and a palpable humidity on screen could be so breathtaking a sight to see.
The Proposition 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★
 Guy Pearce as ‘Charlie Burns’ in ‘The Proposition’. Photo by: Kerry Brown
 John Hurt as ‘Jellon Lamb’ and Danny Huston as ‘Arthur Burns’ in ‘The Proposition’. Photo by: Kerry Brown