Think Western in a cinematic context and, perhaps, John Wayne will figure in your conjured landscape, riding through a scene of cacti and geological monoliths, the very definition of stetsoned americana.
Lately, such traditional images of what a western movie is has been turned upside down by Brokeback Mountain. With The Proposition, it’s set for some further redefinition, and a change of accents and scenery.
Bible bashers may fall back, reassured that The Proposition is not another gay cowboy movie. Rather this is an Australian film set in the outback of the 1880s telling of outlaws, colonial strife and emptiness, but with deserts as vast, with heat as intense and with as many personal scores to settle as any American western has ever laid claim to.
In a roundabout way, brimstone baritone and murder fantasist Nick Cave has finally written a film script of his own. His debut novel And The Ass Saw The Angel began life as a screenplay, and he would later collaborate with The Proposition’s director John Hillcoat on Ghosts of the Civil Dead. Cave, of course, is better known as the lynchpin of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, whose thirteenth studio album Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus was released in 2004. With fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, Cave also provides The Proposition’s starkly eerie soundtrack.
Cave’s cerebral lyrics are transmogrified here into a setting where words are less important than visual imagery and soundscape in achieving a concept. This story, with echoes of the Ned Kelly legend about it, is too complex to be a western in the cowboys and Indians sense, and, like Cave’s music it is dark, even in the bright desert sunshine of the beautifully filmed outback settings.
The film opens with Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his 14-year-old brother Mikey captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who makes them the proposition of the title. Their psychopathic outlaw brother Arthur (Danny Huston) is wanted for a brutal rape and murder, and Stanley gives Charlie a choice – track down Arthur and kill him, or the boy Mikey gets strung up.
In what seems like a side dish to the main action, Stanley has problems aside from the Burns brothers to contend with. He and his innocent wife Martha (Emily Watson) have given up a comfortable life in England for the harsh Australian landscape and the harsh characters it holds, not least renegade Aborigines and local landowner Eden Fletcher (David Wenham).
As Charlie sets out to turn over one brother to save another, obstructed by the thinly sketched bounty hunter character Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) along the way, his dilemma becomes the central story. How will he react when he meets Arthur? Will he betray his own flesh and blood to save the very same? Given what seems like an impossible choice, what will Charlie choose to do?
None of the characters here are loveable, and not all are fully drawn, but they are all compulsive viewing. From the brothers to the army captain, we want to know what happens to them. The script’s starting point is not ideal – we don’t get to see why Arthur became estranged from his brothers, or why Charlie and Mikey became ensnared with their brother on the wrong side of the law. What we are given is a classic western in one sense – the law is what the man with the most power says it is. But that no-one is a “goodie” or a “baddie” makes it a more cerebral experience than the genre’s traditional output.
Ever since his astonishing break from playing a boy next door in Neighbours to a drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Guy Pearce has had reasonable claim on the title of most gifted Australian actor of his generation. Here his character reminds of his turn opposite Robert Carlyle in Ravenous; all long-haired, unkempt and of few words. But here the words have an Australian intonation.
Emily Watson, as the priggish wife of Captain Stanley, is the very epitome of the Victorian maiden struggling with the compromises her inhospitable colonial outpost demands of her manners and her being. As Stanley, Ray Winstone is at his most boorish, a hulk of sweating bad intent whose tenuous control of his town is tested to the limit by all his fellow protagonists.
The Proposition is a violent film, but one that assaults the senses with turns of breathtaking beauty and primeval violence. No one character is ever guiding the agenda, but all are inextricably linked in a common destiny – a microcosm of humanity itself. Cave’s story is fatalistic, and his take on the human condition is deeply unforgiving and pessimistic, but there’s no denying The Proposition’s visual punch.