Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review - The Proposition

“Australia.” growls Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) as he gazes out into the barren wilderness before him, “What fresh hell is this?”. These words, uttered in The Proposition’s opening few moments, prove to be entirely appropriate. The Proposition bears many hallmarks of a traditional Western, with shades of Peckinpah and Leone throughout, but it’s really a descent into hell; an odyssey through a searing, blood-drenched wilderness, where life is cheap and heroes are nonexistent.

The Proposition is written by Bad Seeds frontman and professional misanthrope Nick Cave, whose work here marks his first screenplay since 1988’s Ghosts…of the Civil Dead. Like that film, this tale has been directed by John Hillcoat, but it’s Cave’s twisted, dark personality which seeps from the pages and onto every frame of the film.

Set in the late 19th Century, The Proposition revolves around the relationship between three brothers of Irish heritage, the notorious Burns gang, who are wanted men after the horrific rape and murder of a family. As the film opens we are plunged straight into a bloody and frenetic gunfight, after which two of the brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and younger sibling Mikey (Richard Wilson), find themselves in chains and facing the local police chief Captain Stanley. Mikey is tearful and wounded, while Charlie appears unnaturally calm. Stanley doesn’t intend to take the pair of them to jail though, for he is willing to strike a bargain. He’ll keep Mikey behind bars and if Charlie is willing to track down and kill his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), then he’ll pardon them both. The savage Arthur is the real prize and Stanley is going to let his own kin do the dirty work.

There’s a simplicity about Cave’s screenplay which is both refreshing and infuriating. His characters are starkly drawn in broad strokes and it is left to the actors to fill them out with real emotion, something some of them manage better than others. Although Guy Pearce does a fine job with his thin characterisation and sparse dialogue, and Huston gives an impressive, feral, display; the film is really dominated by Ray Winstone whose complex and powerful portrayal of Stanley often gives this oddly-paced film a much-needed boost. Winstone plays Stanley as a decent man with honourable intentions (he desperately wants to civilise this land) but he has been forced to take a violent and unsavoury route to achieve his aims. When he is with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), we see a dignified character, who is always trying to spare her from knowing too much about the work he must do. In every scene Winstone makes Stanley appear both terrifying and vulnerable, giving a crucial human element to the film.

Without Winstone’s display Stanley may have ended up as a rather two-dimensional villain, something along the lines of Jellon Lamb (David Wenham) in fact. Lamb is Stanley’s superior; a primly dressed, sadistic Englishman with a permanent sneer. It’s here that the lack of depth Cave has afforded to his characters becomes more damaging. Lamb, Mikey, Arthur and most of the other supporting characters (the less said about John Hurt’s barking cameo, the better) are never satisfyingly fleshed out and the resulting lack of engagement we feel with the cast makes the film feel as dry as the scenery which surrounds them. The characters’ relationships are often murky, particularly between the brothers themselves, and their motives are often opaque.

The Proposition opens in unusual fashion, with a pre-credits disclaimer warning those of aboriginal descent that they may find images and scenes in the film shocking. Cave has intertwined aspects of Australia’s early history around his relatively straightforward Western template. In a way this film could be seen as Cave’s Birth of a Nation, with its examination of the bloody settler past that his country was founded upon and with simmering racial tension a constant factor, he is clearly hoping to strike a few nerves in his homeland. This blend of revisionist history and Western cliché is an interesting mix and it sets The Proposition apart from other recent attempts in the genre.

What also sets the film apart is the setting itself. Hillcoat and his cinematographer Benoît Delhomme skilfully capture the intimidating, arid bleakness of the Australian outback and superbly express the searing heat which occasionally seems in danger of burning the celluloid. The Proposition also offers up some striking imagery at times - Stanley and Martha’s small cottage, surrounded by a picket fence, which acts as a little corner of England in this unforgiving land; the sight of blood being wrung out of a whip during a gruelling flogging; and the thousands of flies which are always on the scene, providing a constant nervy buzz on the soundtrack.

The rest of the haunting soundtrack is provided Warren Ellis and Cave himself, and if there’s one thing The Proposition really gets right then it’s atmosphere. Every frame seems marked by death and pain, and Hillcoat’s ability to completely envelop us in this nihilistic world is an impressive display of direction. But the violence, which occurs frequently and bloodily, often has a jolting effect which disrupts the film’s flow and breaks the connection Hillcoat and Cave had carefully cultivated with the viewer. The film’s violent acts are staged in extraordinarily realistic and savage fashion, but when we don’t care for any of the film’s characters - save Winstone - these scenes only provide a short, sharp shock followed by a sense of emptiness where the feeling of loss or pain should be hitting us.

With all of these interesting elements clashing together, and a dose of misguided cod-Irish mysticism layered on top, The Proposition remains a strangely fascinating and grimly compelling tale at least until the flat climax. There are some quite wonderful aspects to the film, but they’re mixed with an equal amount of moments which appear underdeveloped (Cave boasts that he wrote the screenplay in just three weeks) and poorly judged, and it’s frustrating to see a film with so much potential lose its way so readily.

The Proposition is certainly a worthwhile and interesting effort, but much of it has left my memory since I saw it. In fact, despite all the gunfights, the bloodshed and epic scenery; the moment I’ll take from the film is the tiny flinch Stanley gives when he sees his wife naked in the bathtub. That look, and the sense of discomfort etched across his face, tells you in an instant everything you need to know about the couple’s sexless marriage; and it’s another example of Winstone giving us so much more through his performance than the rest of the film can offer. This is a great actor on top form, and The Proposition just can’t keep up with him. If only Cave and Hillcoat had managed to raise the level of everything surrounding Winstone to match his quality, then we could have been talking about The Proposition as something akin to a modern masterpiece.