Friday, May 05, 2006

The Proposition - Movie Review

The Proposition 2006

“There is a happy land, far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, bright, bright as day;
Oh, how they sweetly sing, worthy is our Savior King,
Loud let His praises ring, praise, praise for aye.”
- hymn by Andrew Young

The Proposition” inhabits the arid and deadly terrain of the revisionist Western with more than a passing nod to Sam Peckinpah, John Ford and Sergio Leone as seen thru the lens of Terrence Malick. And if you are unfamiliar with those maestros, please hop the nearest camel to the middle of some desert and stick your head in the sand till you suffocate and die and the vultures come pecking at your innards, you mangy scruff.

Written by the multi-talented iconoclastic musician Nick Cave and directed by music video veteran director John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” emerges as a surprisingly strong drama examining among many things, the intertwining beliefs of loyalty and justice.

The setting is the Australian outback circa 1880, where the grisly rape and murder of a local couple spurs the local constabulary to hunt down the perpetrators in the name of vengeance. The blessedly believable Ray Winstone portrays Captain Stanley as the powerful embodiment of what little law the desolate landscape holds. In the opening blood bath scene, he captures two brothers whose absent sibling turns out to be the wanted man.

Guy Pearce of the sculpted cheekbones and even more sculpted abs portrays Charlie Burns, the unlucky harbinger of justice to his siblings. Guy has always been our guy since his early days seen prancing around in glitter to a thumping Abba soundtrack in “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. Other highlights include the wonderful neo-Noir L.A. Confidential”, the cannibalistic Western odyssey “Ravenous and the high concept thriller “Memento”. Here he provides the calm in the center of the violent storm by restricting his actions to quiet reactions. We loved the way he managed to hold the camera’s gaze without resorting to scenery chewing.

The scenery chewing was left to two time Oscar nominee John Hurt in the supporting role of a bounty hunter who is more fond of his hootch and the sound of his own voice, rather than concentrating on the job at hand. For you see, he too is in search of the missing Burns brother. One Arthur Burns who is described as one of the vilest men alive. When we finally meet the criminal mastermind, as portrayed by Danny Huston, we are somewhat surprised to encounter an erudite folksong loving wastrel who appears to prefer good books to crime sprees.

As portrayed by the scion to the famed Huston clan, Danny Huston centers the films unabashedly graphic violence by his stoic stance and heavy lidded stare. Here indeed is a man capable of great and terrifying acts, who would rather be left alone with his kin to enjoy the majestic beauty of a sunset or listen to a verse or two of “Peggy Gordon”. But in this desolate landscape filled with imagery of death and decay, the man named Arthur Burns is merely one more predator awaiting his opportunity. His ragtag team of miscreants saves our guy Guy from a rather grisly attack by aborigines, completely unaware that he has struck a bargain with Captain Stanley to find and secure Arthur in exchange for his freedom and that of his emotionally stunted younger brother, Mike.

The film weaves together the cruel treatment of young Mike Burns within his prison cell, the slow plotting of Charlie to betray his brother and scenes of domestic irregularity between Captain Stanley and his wife Martha.

Emily Watson portrays the captain’s wife as a slightly high strung dutiful woman who understands her role in the testosterone flying hierarchy but feels it her moral duty to interfere when forced to remember the grisly demise of her friend and neighbor. We admired her ability to embody the “wifely” virtues of a Victorian woman, who undoubtedly loves her husband and yet manages to find the strength to stand up to him when absolutely necessary.

Unfortunately for her, she finds it necessary when leading the local lynch mob in demanding the cruel flogging of the captive younger Burns brother. The filmmakers do not shy away from depicting the bloody deed, but thankfully they are fully aware of the terror and revulsion it inspires in some of the onlookers. Most importantly, in the Captain who feels it his duty to maintain Mike Burns intact according to the rules of the proposition he exchanged with Charlie Burns. The larger catch in his mind is the perpetrator of the rape and murder of innocents, and to this end he targets the gang led by Arthur Burns.

Director John Hillcoat has obviously watched a few classic Westerns in his time. And while he may not have John Ford’s beloved Monument Valley to stage his story within, he makes good use of Australia’s own particular sparse beauty. The cracking earth, the twisting spiraling branches of near dead trees and the limitless vistas all contribute to the texture and air of a dying climate. Perhaps too symbolic of the dying Victorian society and its afternoon tea parties, but we are grateful for the effort.

The debt of honor he owes Terrence Malick is clear as well, but slightly beyond his reach. While Malick is a true artist of the cinema, Mr. Hillcoat seems to appreciate the poetry of a stunning sunset and yet fails to fully incorporate nature into his story in the unequalled manner of the great Malick. That is not to bash Mr. Hillcoat over the head with criticism, we feel he is more than up to the task of framing his action within a strong visual dynamic. By the time the credits roll we felt grateful to have had experienced a real movie. One that told a strong tale of revenge, justice and familial bonds without once pandering to the audience.

The Proposition” benefits greatly from a superb cast, fine production qualities and a ravishing look and feel that creates a distinct mood in this bloody morality tale. And finally, kudos to Nick Cave for combining the mythic qualities of the great Westerns with the quiet dramatics of a families’ demise. He does indeed manage to explore the notions of honor, justice and loyalty in a strong cinematic storytelling sensibility without battering us over the head, raping our intelligence and leaving us for dead. And after all, doesn’t that sound like a fun time at the movies? Bless you all!

Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Nick Cave

Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns
Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley
Emily Watson as Martha Stanley
Danny Huston as Arthur Burns
John Hurt as Jellon Lamb
Richard Wilson as Mike Burns
David Wenham as Eden Fletcher

Original Music by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Cinematography by Benoît Delhomme
Film Editing by Jon Gregory & Ian Seymour
Production Design by Chris Kennedy
Art Direction by Bill Booth & Marita Mussett
Set Decoration by Jill Eden
Costume Design by Margot Wilson


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