Wednesday, 10 October 2007

review: the proposition (john hillcoat, 2006)

"Australia...what fresh hell is this?"

Standing in the gruesome aftermath of a desperate and frantic gunfight that opens the film in media res, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) looks out at the sweltering, barren landscape of the Australian outback in near-desperation, and anachronistically quotes Dorothy Parker. Later in the film, bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) remarks how all the God has evaporated out of him in this "godforsaken land". The harsh Australian landscape, dusty, bleached, buzzing with flies, endless, mocks Captain Stanley and his repeated platitudes that he will "civilize this land". It mocks the little rose garden his wife (Emily Watson) tends in front of their house, demarcated by a ridiculously out-of-place white picket fence from the vast sea of sand and rock that surrounds it.

The traditional Western dichotomy between the wilderness and the encroaching garden of civilization is present and accounted for, but this is neither a throwback to the classic Western, glorifying the settlers and their work, nor is it a revisionist recasting of the settlers as corrupt spearheads of capitalism, destroying the natural landscape and all it stands for. Here, the wilderness is savage, empty, and so cosmically indifferent to the figures within it that any delusions of taming it are laughable.

1880s Australia in
The Proposition is a vision of hell, a godless, amoral wasteland in which all attempts at civility and civilization seem woefully inadequate. This land - which director John Hillcoat rightly places in the foreground of the film, somehow making sweeping, empty landscapes seem stifling and claustrophobic - is a land of dust, flesh and blood, a place where a man can have little pretentions of being anything other than a beast, and where any sort of morality seems an exercise in futility. Watson's Martha Stanley,a gentle, composed, seemingly upper-class woman, seems, together with the class and domestic values she represents, utterly out of place here.

Here, justice becomes an elastic concept; the word is much bandied about but no-one seems to agree on what it means or how it should be enforced. Captain Stanley, who, despite a distinct roughness, at least possesses some degree of compassion, is the only person willing to look beyond an especially vicious eye-for-an-eye philosophy; but even this slight hint of morality seems like a hopeless match struck in an ocean of darkness.

Nick Cave's voice is clearly evident in the screenplay (he also contributes an unsurprisingly excellent but surprisingly understated score), in its blend of low, casual vulgarity and violence, and high seriousness. There is the distinct hint of Old Testament fire and brimstone coursing through every line of dialogue, resounding with an elaborate but unforced, dramatic theatricality that is entirely appropriate to this resolutely expressionist, despite its dusty grittiness, film. Hillcoat translates the copious acts of violence in the script primarily through effective suggestion and detail - blood being strained from a whip, and so on - though there is one glaring, and memorable, exception (you'll know it when you see it).

The hint of Abel and Cain haunts the central narrative, of Charles Burns (Guy Pearce), the middle brother of a three-sibling outlaw gang, forced to choose between hunting down his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or letting his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) be hanged. There are also echoes of Conrad's Heart of Darkness (and Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979)), with Arthur seeming to have become a kind of Kurtz figure, a near-godlike legend who has absorbed the spirit of the land.

This is a rich film unafraid to tackle the big themes - family, morality, justice, atonement. But, despite Hillcoat's and Cave's considerable talents, the film would not have worked as well as it does without the contributions of a truly remarkable cast. It is difficult to pick a standout, since all the principal players - Winstone, Pearce, Huston, Watson, Hurt - deliver perfectly-judged performances, from Hurt's histrionic grandstanding, to Watson's understated, restrained turn, to Pearce's ragged, conflicted introversion. Their performances prove crucial, for despite the loftiness of its themes, The Proposition's ideas are expressed through the conflicts and relationships that tie its characters together; the family bonds that link the Burns brothers, Captain Stanley's troubled but affectionate relationship with his wife, his subordinates' flagging trust in his authority, the pact, if there is one at all, between Captain Stanley and Charles Burns; and the crux of the film lies in the way all these relationships come under strain, often violently, as all the characters attempt to follow their own twisted moral compass in a godless, spiritually and materially arid land.

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