September 18, 2006

The Proposition

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of 5): ****

If Peter Weir (of the early variety) had channeled Sam Peckinpah he might have conspired to
produce something like The Proposition, John Hillcoat's Aussie meta-Western, a bleak and violent parable as mesmerizing as it is disturbing. In short, don't miss it. It's also exactly the kind of film you'd expect to have been written by musician Nick Cave - poetic, gloomy, gritty and as often brilliant as pretentious. Set in the harsh realm of the Australian outback of the late 19th century, an even more inhospitable land than the American west's desert terrain, where the parched land and cruel sun do damage to men's psyches.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, one-third of a trio of criminal brothers; the others being psychotic killer Arthur (Danny Huston, spellbinding) and terrified young 'un Mike who becomes the pawn in a lawman's (Ray Winstone) plans to capture Arthur, wanted for the brutal killing of a pregnant woman. Huston's Arthur Burns is a more primal variation on Henry Fonda's psychopathic killer in Once Upon a Time in the West - full of brutal behavior and puzzling poetic asides.

The film also sets itself apart with its location specific plotting and characterizations - from the aboriginal trackers (including a deputy played by veteran actor David Gulpilil) who work for the white settlers even as they are wary of revealing all the land's secrets, to the forbidding caves and canyons in which the mythic Burns hides out.

The narrative is bisected by the twin stories of the search for Arthur with that from the sheriff's perspective. As fantastic an actor as Winstone is (you might remember him as 'Gal' Dove in Sexy Beast), I found myself often impatient with the amount of time spent on his story and away from the story of brother tracking and finding brother. This is also a function of Huston's performance - any time the film is away from him it almost suffers in comparison. He's absolutely riveting while not overplaying it. And as the brother with more of a conscience, Pearce serves as a worthy counterpart, tormented by his own demons and confronted with the horrible proposition at the film's core - to kill one brother to save another.


Hurt and Huston face off in The Proposition

In fact, all the performances here are all first-rate, even if not all the characters themselves are fully developed. (It wouldn't be a Western without delving into archetypes.) John Hurt makes a lasting impression in just a handful of scenes as the weather-beaten bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, chewing the scenery behind scuzzy makeup. Emily Watson represents the "civilization" that the rest of these brutes are too long separated from, as she tries to make a go of a life in the outback with her husband, the police Captain Stanley. And for a time she manages to keep the savage world outside at bay.

The late 19th century atmosphere is captured with keen authenticity - even the wardrobe, right down to the buttons, was all handmade - although the film has also been criticized in some corners for historical innacuracy. [Read Senses of Cinema for more.] Not being an expert on Australian history, I can't judge on this point but it is worth noting.

The Proposition is packed with unforgettable scenes, not the least of which is the terrifying Christmas Day dinner in which the Stanleys are interrupted by the beastly gang in a sequence shocking in its carnality and finality. While the film wavers in pacing and focus, it's never less than entrancing, a Western at once intensely modern and a throwback of which Peckinpah would be proud.

[One odd bit of trivia: fine Australian actor Noah Taylor (Shine, Flirting, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) appears in the film for literally only a couple of minutes, quickly meeting a grisly fate in the opening scene. Perhaps he was a victim of the editing room.]

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Posted by cphillips at September 18, 2006 3:19 PM
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