on August 1, 2006
When I first saw John Hillcoat's film The Proposition I was literally shocked and dumbstruck with what I had just witnessed. As a long-time aficionado of the horror genre I could say that part of me has become desensitized to onscreen violence and nothing really shocks me. Even though I've seen films with more violence throughout its running time, The Proposition just had a heavy sense of despair, moral ambiguity, and a Miltonian feel throughout. The film felt like how it would be if one accepted an offer from one of the damned to stroll down to the Nine Circles of Hell. As much as I didn't want to accept that offer the curiosity of what I might see won out. That's how I was able to sit through the entirety of Hillcoat's ultra-violent and nihilistic tale of lawless and amoral individuals in the untamed wilderness of 1880's Australian Outback.
I must agree with film critic Roger Ebert when he said The Proposition seemed to mirror another dark and violent tale. Hillcoat's film shares so much the same themes and tone as Cormac McCarthy's brutal novel, Blood Meridian, that one almost wondered if the film was adapted from McCarthy's great novel. But similarities aside, Hillcoat and Nick Cave's (director and writer respectively) film can clearly stand on its own two bloody legs.
The film begins with a bloody siege and shootout and we're soon introduced to two of the three Burns' brothers. We soon find out that both brothers, Charlie (played by Guy Pearce)and Mikey (played by Richard Wilson) are outlaws wanted for a multitude of heinous crimes with a recent one the senseless rape and murder of the Hopkins family. One Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) who acts as law in this particular area of the Outback. He's gives older brother Charlie a proposition. He'll spare the younger brother's life from the hangman's noose if Charlie finds their older brother Arthur (played with Kurtz-like menace by Danny Huston) and kills the outlaw leader. The quest is set as Charlie accepts and sets out to find his brother. Whether Charlie will go through with killing his older brother Arthur is one thing the audience won't find out until the final minutes of the film. Even though there's no love-lost between Charlie and Arthur, there's still the traditional bond of family that makes Charlie's quest a complex one.
We realize early on that Charlie is very protective of his simpler, younger brother Mikey and would do anything to save his life. Guy Pearce does a great performance as the conflicted and brooding Charlie Burns. There's a quiet intensity in Pearce's performance. He's pretty quiet through most of the film, but one could feel the palpable rage just roiling beneath his brooding countenance. Pearce's Charlie is one who is only a trigger away from exploding into outright violence. Charlie is definitely a child and creation of the lawless Outback the film is set in.
Arthur Burns on the other hand is introduced as an almost warrior-poet who would watch the sun set and spout poetry as easily as gun down an innocent or slice a man's throat without missing a beat. Danny Huston does a bravura performance as the charismatic and wholly amoral Arthur. His performance easily matches that of Pearce's scene for scene. Another performance that I must point out as being very strong in the film is Ray Winstone as Capt. Stanley, the Ahab of the tale with his obsession to bring civilization to the lawless Outback and to bring Arthur Burns to ultimate justice even if it means dealing with the lesser evil that is Charlie Burns.
The Proposition will be talked about alot for its unflinching look at violence onscreen. Though there's been films that have more violence per hour than Hillcoat's film, but the extreme brutality of the killings, maimings and rape in The Proposition has such an air of realism to it that one cringes at every gunshot wound and knife slashing. Like Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, The Proposition's scenes of depravity makes one want to rush into the shower and cleanse off the dirt, grime and stink of the film. It's in this unflinching and realistic portrayal of death and violence that the film shares alot with McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The images are difficult to watch, but our curiosity makes us look through squinted eyes to see the full breadth of the violence. In time, just through the audiences acceptance of the oncreen violence do we soon become complicit in whats going on the screen.
It is a shame that The Proposition had such a limited release in the US. I think this film would've done as well as Eastwood's Unforgiven in giving the audience a different, darker side of the Old West mythology (though its really the Australian Old West). John Hillcoat has crafted himself a brutal and nihilistic film that's very hard to watch but also difficult to ignore. The Proposition is a film I highly recommened people see in the theaters before it disappears, but failing that they should search out for the dvd once its released in that medium. This film is that good.
This film has often been compared to Eastwood's spare and dark UNFORGIVEN. There are certainly many similarities in tone. But if anything, there is even less redemption available at the end of this Australian western than at the end of that Oscar winner.
Simply put, Ray Winstone plays the equivalent of the "new sheriff" in a very small, dreary dusty "western" town in Australia. The worst bandits in his area, the Burns brothers, are his primary goal, and when he corners and captures the two youngest brothers, Mickey and Charley (Guy Pearce), he offers Charley a proposition. He and his simple younger brother will be released if Charley goes out and kills his psychopathic older brother Arthur. If not, Mickey will be hung on Christmas Day, a few days away.
The fallout from this simple proposition is bleak, bleak, bleak. The film is slow moving and takes time to establish tone and to let us savor the unbelievable Australian scenery. As John Hurt (as a bounty hunter) says, it's the most horrific place he's ever been. The scenery is beautiful (sunsets, colorful rocks) and brutal...long expanses of sand and scruff. But the slow pace is punctuated with moments of extremely graphic violence. Each bullet hole or knife wound (or spear wound) is painful to watch. I'm not sure when I last saw a movie that made violence appear so unpleasant, so painful and so ugly.
Everyone in the film is great. Guy Pearce...exceedingly grubby...is torn between deciding how to deal with one of his brothers inevitably dieing. Ray Winstone gives a rich performance...just when we think we've got this guy figured out, he shows another layer. And then another. He wins our sympathy finally. Emily Watson is his wife, and her performance is a litle colorless...it's the biggest weakness in the characterizations. Not her fault...she's just too passive to be entirely believed.
The best performance comes from Danny Huston (John's son, Anjelica's brother) as Arthur, the psycho. His character appreciates nature and poetry, but also raping and slow, painful murders. He's a conundrum that's never fully explained...but Huston is riveting. His oily, sweaty, dirty face is etched with emptiness...I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but trust me.
Other nice touches include an interesting soundtrack (co-written by Nick Cave, who wrote the script) and lots of stuff focusing on the uneasy melding of the "white" man and aboriginies. This adds an extra layer of sadness, and of danger, to all the proceedings.
I would give the movie 4.5 stars, if I could. It doesn't quite reach 5 (the pace is just occasionally over-indulgent...a couple of semi-important characters just drop from the story), but it's very compelling, very brutal filmmaking. NOT FOR KIDS!!!
Historically, and from a character perspective, there's still mining to be done in western films, and THE PROPOSITION gives us a great sense of both. Aussie director John Hillcoat delves into Australia in the 1880s, telling about the bloody lawlessness and aboriginal prejudices.
The story centers around the outlaw Burns brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL), Mike (DECK DOGZ) and Arthur (Danny Huston, THE CONSTANT GARDNER). When Charlie and Mike are caught by local lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, COLD MOUNTAIN), Charlie is pulled aside and given a distasteful proposition: kill your brother Arthur and Mike will live. Charlie loves Mike dearly and hardly knows his other brother, Arthur. He grudgingly accepts the terms but it quickly becomes clear that he's unsure what to do. Is the killing of one family member in order to save another morally apprehensible? What if your moral boundaries are skewed?
Charlie rides off to find his brother in the searing Australian Outback.
Meanwhile, back in town, Captain Stanley is having great difficulty controlling its citizens once they learn one of the dreaded Burns brothers is in the local jail. A powerful bureaucrat named Eden Fletcher (David Wenham, THE LORD OF THE RINGS) demands swift justice. He orders that Mike Burns be lashed 100 times. Knowing that Mike probably won't survive this, but also battling feelings his lovely wife Martha (Emily Watson, GOSFORD PARK) has about the crimes Mike has committed, Captain Stanley is forced to give in to the township's demands.
Back in the Outback, Charlie finally runs into his twisted brother and comes face-to-face with his worst fears: killing someone of his own flesh and blood. Can he do it? Should he do it?
The word "epic" has been on the lips of many reviewers, but epic may be too big a term for this flick. It is enjoyable, and has sweeping views and great acting (even John Hurt makes a soulful appearance as a perverse bounty hunter), but it doesn't approach films such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or DOCTOR ZHIVAGO in scope. And that's okay. There are many films out there that are still very enjoyable but don't meet the epic criteria.
That the western film has been done for nearly a century might make one think that it's dying out as a genre. But no. THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUAIDES ESTRADA and UNFORGIVEN are two of the more recent favorites that prove there's still life out there for the western. And The Proposition is another excellent example that it's still got cinematic value.
on September 17, 2007
Wow, what a brutal "western." I put "western" in quotes because most people think of the western half of the United States as being the locale for western movies. This movie was made and set in Australia but the time frame is similar: around 1880. What's "brutal" about the story is the violence, bloodshed and language - but only in spots.
The language is odd in that the vocabulary of most of the people is above-average, but be warned there are a number of f-words. I question whether that word was around in the 19th century, but it's prevalent in this film. Actually, the violent scenes will be more offensive to viewers than the profanity. Like the profanity, however, the violence only comes in spurts. Most of the film has much calmer moments, surprisingly low-key.
One thing that is there throughout the 104 minutes is the excellent cinematography. This is a pretty film, nicely shot with some beautiful scenery and colors, stylish at times, too. To me, this was the best part of the movie. It's indeed a visual treat. Benoit Delholmme deservedly won several international awards for his camera-work in here.
MOVIE: The Proposition opens in the middle of an intense gunfight and we learn that it was actually an ambush set up to catch the ruthless Charlie and Mickey Burns. Two of three brothers who are part of the problem that Captain Stanley is trying to fix. The film is set during the 1800's in the Australian outback as Britain began to colonize the continent and basically throw the Australian Aboriganals into slavery. The story revolves around Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) who is trying to "civilize" the land by ridding it of the murderous outlaws who plague it. So, he captures Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and Michael Burns (Richard Wilson) and offers Charlie a proposition. He wants him to set out into the outback to find his other brother, Arthur Burns. He feels that Arthur is the abomination who has the reputation of being a rapist and a murderer. He wants Charlie to kill is brother or his younger brother will be hanged on Christmas Day. The film is incredibly gritty, and incredibly violent. In fact, it's as violent as the crud that we see in horror movies these days. However, the violence is not used for gore's sake but rather in a realistic and effective manner that adds to the tone of the film. The characters are deeply fleshed out and the screenplay is absolutely amazing. The film has a distinct moral ambiguity, and that makes us as an audience have to decipher which of these characters are good or bad. To label a main character in this film would prove difficult since each of them goes through their individual journey. I suppose if you were to single out a main character then it would be Guy Pearce, but Ray Winstone's character almost has the same weight as Pearce's. They both go through a series of events that leads them to their own discoveries of who they really are in this mess. Who is right and who is wrong in this movie? Captain Stanley is ridding the land of crime, but in doing so he is taking over the land of the natives and creating hatred and intolerance towards them. Charlie Burns may be a bad guy, but he goes on a personal journey of loyalty to his family and comes to realize just who his family is in comparison to himself. Does this revalation make him a good person? The film presents lots of questions for the audience to ponder, which is why it is such a great film. This is not just a mindless shoot 'em up western, this movie requires an expression of thought on the audience's part. The problem with the film in my opinion was the pacing, which in turn leads to the editing. The film was poorly constructed and it didn't spend time where we needed to spend time. The film is told in a linear fashion, but scenes felt short and before you know it we're already progressing to the next scene. The film overall is an amazing experience though. Nick Cave's script is just marvelous, and his subtle and menacing musical score is brilliant. The film also boasts breathtaking cinematography, cinematography that would make Leone himself very proud. Color tones, extreme contrast, and extreme wideshots are also all used to perfection and they all relate directly to the story. Look for shifts in color and certain motifs that are used, it is really a feast for the eyes.
ACTING: The film has an amazing cast. Guy Pearce (Memento), Ray Winstone (voice of Mr. Beaver in Narnia), Danny Huston (The Aviator), Emily Watson (Angela's Ashes), John Hurt (Alien, V For Vendetta), and David Wenham (Faramir from LOTR) all deliver amazing performances. They each craft their characters out so well that it makes the film incredibly interesting to watch. There isn't one weak link within the entire cast, they all have great performances. Truly a very great cast.
BOTTOM LINE: Gritty, dirty, brutal, and intelligent. The film is a great morality tale about righteousness in human nature, and it has an amazing cast to deliver Nick Cave's amazing screenplay. John Hillcoat presents a great vision for the film, but his sense of direction is a tad bit unfocused. The poor editing also detracts from the impact the movie has on the audience. The film's brilliant cinematography is worth admission price alone though. See it if you can find it since it's a limited release, but if you can't find it at a theater then definately check it out on DVD.
on May 26, 2006
Brutal, dangerous, morally suspect, psychologically devious, John Hillcoat and Nick Cave's "The Proposition" begins with a gut-wrenching, viscerally effective scene of human carnage that signals a film with its own set of moral and social values.
We are in Australia, circa 1880: a land set up by Mother England as a place to send its lawbreakers and a situation about which the native people, the Aborigines are none to happy.
"The Proposition" is peopled with la crème de la crème of Brit/Aussie actors: Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, the "Sheriff," Emily Watson as his wife Martha, Guy Pearce as the grizzled Charlie Burns and Danny Huston as Charlie's brother Arthur: a cryptic, God-like Colonel Kurtz who lords over a posse of family, friends and Aborigines.
The Burns brothers are wanted criminals and when Charlie and his brother Mike are arrested, Captain Stanley proffers a Proposition to Charlie: kill your brother Arthur and I will release your brother Mike and expiate your crimes against the state. And so begins a biblical-era crime spree that rivals anything ever committed to film.
There are scenes of great physical beauty here alternating with scenes of horror and carnage and it's the juxtaposition of the two that give this film its profound moral weight and ambiguity.
"The Proposition" is a dry, arid, violent film: an often corrupt and anarchic film that prefers to stand back, watch, not pass moral judgement nor differentiate the good guys from the bad.
on July 30, 2007
This film, written by and with music from Nick Cave has scenic beauty, several scenes of horrific inhumanity, and excellent acting from beginning to end. Guy Pearce does a Sheen-like turn as the brother and Danny Huston as the Brando-type (loosely from Apocalypse Now). Emily Watson strongly plays the Captain's wife. Ray Winstone as the captain that wants to bring civilization to the outback of Australia. John Hurt has several memorable moments as the bounty hunter.
This movie shows what a great piece of art a Western can be. The endless possibilities. The wide open space. The polychromatic visions and desert landscape. Westerns juxtapose beauty and horror right next to one another as if they were Siamese twins. This is why historically, the Western places prominently in the best films of all time.
on September 3, 2007
This relentlessly violent film is a thing of beauty, enhanced by a vicious and taut script (Nick Cave) as well as a great cast, all of whom do outstanding work. The spectral Australian landscape is a counterpoint to the brutal human presence. The filming reminded me of Terrence Malick, whose films highlight the crazed behaviour of humans while nature's ebb and flow continues, indifferent to the bloodletting. Ray Winstone, as the man who 'will civilize the place' clings to civility while engaged in a nasty job, and Guy Pierce has some unpleasant business to attend to, including the stir- crazy character played by John Hurt. Emily Watson is wholesome and helpless in a landscape that must have been as if from another planet to the colonial brutes from England and Ireland. Riveting and glorious viewing, this is a stark, fly-infested view from down-under as it probably was back in the day.
on January 31, 2007
"Suppose I said that I could give you the chance to expunge the guilt beneath which you so clearly labour" so said Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce). Of all the "suppositions", this one sentence encapsulates all that can said of each and every major character in the film.
Moral ambuiguity aside, Charlie Burns is faced with a devil's alternative. The vague allegory that he is plunging headlong into Dante's Inferno, also known as the wild west of the Australian outback, is also considered as a journey in the heart of darkness, Conrad-style. Only this time, the relationship between the hunter and the hunted is made more complex and familial.
Choosing between the love of his family and his own life, he values the life and welfare of his younger brother, Mikey, even more than his own. Thus, he accepted the suicide mission without much protest. In terms of priority, he values his own life than that of his flamboyant older brother, Arthur, whom he was sent to terminate "with extreme prejuidice".
Guy Pearce exudes a sense of brood and existentialism over the course of the beautifully photographed film. Danny Huston played Arthur Burns as a sort of a mythic Kurtz-like character who proceeds his monstrous deeds with a bestial instinct, but like an animal, know when the end is nigh. Emily Watson is also given substantial screentime, adding dimension to a female character in an otherwise, machismo film. The director John Hillcoat is to be applauded for giving a holistic overall development of all characters in the film. The addition of an erratic soundtrack that adds to the dread and abysmal situation in the outback severely elevates the film to a mythic proportion.
The Proposition has the kind of premise that Anthony Mann would have loved - wild colonial boy Guy Pearce is released into the outback to kill his psychotic older brother Danny Huston to save his younger brother from the noose by Ray Winstone's policeman determined to civilize his godforsaken corner of 19th century Australia. Unfortunately it never quite makes enough of it. Coming to it after both the excessive praise and the equally excessive backlash I wasn't disappointed, although the film does have problems. The most obvious is that screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat become so enamoured of Winstone's character that he dominates the film to the detriment of not only the other players but the film itself: while there's none of his scenes that should be cut, neither Pearce nor Huston get nearly as much screentime. As a result, the central moral dilemma is kept firmly backstage and Huston's nature is only really hinted at rather than explored, although the violence, when it comes, is convincingly blunt. But at times it's almost as if Coppola had decided that instead on concentrating on Martin Sheen's killer in Apocalypse Now he'd make a film about the officer who sends him out to terminate with extreme prejudice instead.
It's a film with great things going for it - there's some fine dialogue, Hillcoat has a great visual sense and a striking eye for the Scope frame, while an underplayed Winstone is superb - but one that never becomes great.