By Elford Alley. This is RETROGRADING, where we can never just stop.
THE FILM: The Proposition
THE TIME: 2005 featured a number of unique takes on the Western, such as Serenity, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Brokeback Mountain. But it was John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, featuring a screenplay by Nick Cave and score by Warren Ellis, that would both capture the essence of the classic Western, while also undermining it with dark ruminations on the nature of man and God.
RECOLLECTIONS: Westerns as a rule are not historically accurate. In fact, the least accurate tend to be bright spots in the genre (such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly’s fudging of the American Civil War or Tombstone’s exaggerated shootout at OK Corral). However, The Proposition has been praised for its accurate portrayal of indigenous Australians (a rare instance of a film hiring representatives of a culture and then actually listening to their advice) and the grittiness of the Australian Outback.
This isn’t a film afraid to get dirty. Everyone is coated in sweat. They wear dusty, faded clothing. When watching a gory public execution, you see flies coating the often-stultified bystanders. You can also smell the foul odor that would have emanated from people in 19th dress baking in a hot, dry environment like the Outback. In fact, the only two characters who don’t look they went six weeks without a bath, Martha Stanley and Eden Fletcher, are portrayed as people who simply don’t belong in this world. Throughout the film, attempts at civility and maintaining polite society often lead directly to bloodshed and horror. In this world, director John Hillcoat shows us only the cruel can thrive.
The Proposition is Nick Cave’ first major screenplay and second collaboration with Hillcoat. They create a pared-down and uncompromising take on Westerns, while treating fans to a world that hasn’t been explored much in the genre, 19th century Australia. As with all great genre films, the plot is simple: After the Burns gang robs, rapes, and murders a local family, two members are captured. One brother is the simple (and likely innocent) 19-year-old Mike Burns. His older brother, Charlie Burns, is given a task by the town’s Captain: kill the eldest Burns brother in nine days or Mike hangs. But this proposition soon threatens to destroy the small town, burning away the veneer of a safe haven the Captain hoped he could foster for his wife, Martha.
THE DIRECTOR: Few directors are so adept at painting a bleak, apocalyptic landscape as John Hillcoat. (His credits include The Road, Triple 9, and the underrated film Lawless, also written by Cave.) As he would on Lawless, he collaborated with not only Nick Cave, but musician Warren Ellis, who crafts a mournful and melodic score (as he would with another 21st century western classic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Hillcoat embraces landscapes, revealing characters as tiny figures struggling through a vast and hostile world, whether found in the past or the uncertain future. They struggle with creating the world they want to live in while being forced to adapt to a much crueler reality.
THE CAST: Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) gives Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) the aforementioned proposition. Winstone crafts a truly tragic character, a man using cold logic to obtain an admirable goal: create a civilized Australian settlement to inhabit with his wife, Martha Stanley (Emily Watson). Watson nails her character’s frailty and false bravado as she loses friends to the Burns’ gang, glimpses the reality of revenge via a public flogging, and watches helplessly as evil literally invades her home. Unhappy with the deal he struck with the Burns gang, Winstone’s character becomes the target of vengeful townspeople, encouraged by his cruel and obtuse boss, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham).
Pearce’s Charlie is a weary protagonist, a man trying to do right by his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson). He speaks very infrequently, but Pearce gives Charlie a weight to each line. Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) brings the appropriate amount of sleaze as a verbose psychopath and patriarch of the Burns clan. The film also features John Hurt as a cynical bounty hunter named Jellon Lamb, intent on bringing in the Burns gang. Acclaimed indigenous Australian actors David Gulpilil and Tom E. Lewis appear as Jacko and Two Bob. Lewis would later praise the steps the filmmakers took to ensure his culture was portrayed accurately.
NOSTALGIA-FEST OR REPRESSED NIGHTMARE? Nostalgia-Fest. The Proposition remains the strongest of the three collaborations from John Hillcoat, Nick Cave, and Warren Ellis. A timeless entry into the Western genre.
RETROGRADE: 7 out of 10