The Proposition has been out for, oh, couple of months now, I think. But is the fact that everyone who was going to see it has probably done so by now going to stop me adding my two cents? What, and be relevant? Piss on that.
There’ve been several excellent reviews by local bloggists kicking around the inter-web for a while now: click here for Ben’s and here (scroll down) for Lucy Tartan’s if you’re desperately looking for an excuse to navigate away from this post, you churls. However, as Monsieur Cave’s little riff on post-colonialism is one of those films that everyone seems to have a decidedly different take on, I feel completely unabashed in throwing my belated opinions into the ring.
For those few not in the know, the plot of The Proposition is a fairly simple one. Rubicund Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), anxious to assert his authority over the surly locals and having captured two-thirds of the notorious Burns brothers following their latest episode of rapine and pillage, offers middle sibling Charlie (Guy Pearce) the eponymous deal: to go and kill his older, madder, badder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or watch his handsome but half-witted younger brother dance the Tyburn jig. Charlie takes the deal, and Cap’n Stanley heads home to his wife (Emily Watson) to await the fruits of his labour. This being a Nick Cave story, said fruits inevitably arrive rotten.
Lucy Tartan has made note of the similarities between this film and Jarmusch’s superlative Dead Man, but I think such an assessment is perhaps unfair. There are a couple of superficial parallels, true - although Lucy is spot-on about the “misanthrope” scene, a piece of dialogue apparently torn wholesale from Jarmusch and shorn of proper context; this is both annoying and bewildering – but elements like the episodic journey through the wilderness, the spear which pierces Pearce close by the heart: these are not the central aspects of the plot, but merely devices by which to drive it slowly forward.
It’s the plot that rules The Proposition; everything hinges on its ineluctable movement from points A to B, and character, script, and subtext are often left floundering in its wake. Stanley’s deal with the reluctant devil lies at the heart of the film, and everything that occurs after can only do so as an expansion on or consequence of that pact. This results in, for many including myself, the film’s greatest problem, as the story bifurcates early, and we are essentially left with two different films pushed to arrive at the same conclusion without ever really intersecting: Charlie’s shoot ‘em up outlaw tale, and Stanley’s psycho/sociological exploration of colonialism. The upshot of this is loose ends and characters whose actions are justified only by the auspices of the plot, and not by internal logic – witness that the cruel, hypocritical Stanley who dreams up the proposition is largely irreconcilable with the stern but just Stanley with whom the audience is asked to sympathise thereafter. The script often appears to reflect this schizophrenic approach as well, and veers between period-piece realism and heavy stylisation, either of which would be fine, but not both.
The great triumph of The Proposition is its cinematography. Here there can be no similarities with Dead Man. In the latter film, the landscape, the camera angles, all are drenched with a slow, elegiac lyricism – entirely appropriate to the subject matter. The Proposition does exactly the opposite, with the Australian landscape presented as a Drysdale painting: stark, severe, wracked and tormented. It is deeply compelling and deeply ugly, shorn of all lyricism and romantic notions. It eats romantic notions for breakfast, in fact, and this is surely the point of the movie. All efforts at civilizing, poeticising, beautifying, quickly evaporate in the heat: the Stanleys' garden, pathetically pretty with its white picket fence a poor shield against the encroaching wasteland, which will come charging violently in before the end; Arthur, crouching on the ridge, mouthing poetry into the great emptiness and decorating his cave with scraps of erudition – and then burning them, in favour of decorating the walls with John Hurt’s spattered blood. Australia is presented as a killer of meaning, turning attempts at civilization into exercises in brutality.
If any direct comparisons can be made, more applicable ones might be to Heart of Darkness or, of course, Apocalypse Now – studies of the horror (if you’ll forgive a particularly bad reference) of colonialism and the imperialistic mindset. The similarity is particularly true when considering Pearce’s sojourn into the wild to find and kill his brother. It is no accident that his character is named Charlie. And it is to Danny Huston’s great credit that he manages to keep his character from becoming Brando-esque, which it so easily could. Instead he plays Arthur as a terrifying yet avuncular figure, apt to switch from jovial bonhomie to murderous rage with lightning speed.
Would that other roles were played so well. Hurt attempts to chew as much scenery as he can fit into a toothy mouth, and knock over everything that he can’t with his flailing arms. And David Wenham... egads. That horse! That accent! That moustache! What was he thinking? Dick Dastardly by way of Little Lord Fauntleroy? Both are normally fine performers, but whether it was their own poor choices as actors or the film trying to beat us over the head with unsubtle subtext, as it does on a regular basis, I’m uncertain.
The other two major criticisms I’ve heard launched at the film are its violence and its use of Aboriginals, but I found neither to be major problems. I have no trouble with the level of violence portrayed – it’s entirely suitable to a colonial society – only in the way it’s meted out. A lot of blood gets spilled, and it’s aesthetically unpleasing. The Proposition takes the gore to splatter film proportions, and while I love splatter films, this shouldn’t have been one. It’s the implied violence that is most effective – it’s not the sight of the flogged boy’s back or the moment when his screams stop, but the buzzing of the flies and the number “38” that had me squirming; not Winstone’s mashed-up mug, but the look on Emily Watson’s face as she listens to the muffled thuds coming from the next room.
As for the film’s portrayal of Aboriginals, I fail to see the problem: no, we don’t see them or their plight much past the middle of the movie, and at the beginning it's all dealt with a bit simplistically; important though this subject is, however, it is not one that the film claims as key. This could easily, like Dead Man, have been a film about race, or about the treatment of women in colonial Australia for that matter, but it couldn’t have dealt with those issues while retaining the same plot – which is, as mentioned, of greater importance to Cave. Instead, and laudably, the film allows for the existence of these concerns, and more than acknowledges them, before going on to play out the consequences of Stanley’s bargain.
The Proposition is, to be fair, a long way from being perfect; that said, it is utterly and refreshingly different from all other recent Australian fare, is mostly well acted, and is fascinating ugly. Go and see it before it closes. All four of you who haven’t already, and bothered to read to the end of this spurious review, bless your little hearts.