Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Does she cook a good rabbit stew?
I once had a lively debate with a professor who argued that Sam Shepard's True West was intended as a commentary on the essential emptiness of the western genre. My feeling was that Shepard used the formulaic western screenplay that the two brothers were writing to demonstrate how even the most banal stories can still carry a great deal of meaning. The debate ultimately hinged on whether or not westerns are, in fact, any good, and while the professor was willing to consider a few anti-Western examples like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, she remained otherwise unmoved. I hope that she sees The Proposition, a film that takes a story ripped from a thousand paperbacks and creates pure poetry.
The Proposition opens with the piercing sound of bullets ripping through a tin shack, plunging us directly into the chaos of another time and place. The film takes place in rural Australia in the 1880s, where settlers like Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) are determined to create a "civilized" society. Stanley has captured Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mike (Richard Wilson), two thirds of a band of vicious outlaws wanted for murdering an entire family (including an unborn child). Stanley offers Charlie about nine days ("until Christmas") to find and kill Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), the eldest brother and the leader of the gang. If Charlie succeeds, he and his brother will be pardoned; if not, Mike will hang. In other words, the plot is as simple as any episode of Rawhide. But The Proposition's greatness lies in the details - in brief exchanges between characters, in the tense pauses between words, and in the sight of one man dwarfed against a vast landscape.
The screenplay is by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave (and not British, and dead, singer/songwriter Nick Drake, as I mistakenly stated before), and his influence can be felt not just in the sparse, evocative dialogue, but in the film's searing images. Director John Hillcoat depicts the Outback as a place of rough, hard surfaces, blinding sunlight, and cold blue nights where even hardened like Arthur sit quietly before the moon. The film is populated by hard-hearted characters; during a brutal flogging, we observe the indifferent faces of the townspeople, covered in flies, as though they were already dead. The leads look ragged, Charlie caked in blood and dirt, Arthur's face covered in matted hair, and bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt, stealing the film) cackling dreadfully, his face like a canvas of ragged leather. Only two characters could look at home in Victorian England: the snide British officer Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) and Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), who trembles at the hint of unknown horrors and recounts a dream about the deceased child as though she might break into a million pieces at any moment.
The Proposition proceeds inevitably, as westerns often do, to a grim showdown between lawmen and outlaws. But while Charlie is our reluctant hero, and Pearce invests him with the quiet stoicism required of a western hero, our loyalties are not so much reversed as completely subverted. This is a film where the sacred rides hand in hand with the profane, where a cold-blooded killer like Arthur can speak about the joys of love and family (and thanks to Huston's revelatory performance, we hang on his every word). The aborigines are always at the periphery of the film, yet they're important; The Proposition is concerned with how we define "savages," and what is truly savage. In the end, we're left with two brothers side by side, as one asks the other what comes next. It's as good a question now as it ever was.