Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Proposition

The typical Western has good guys (usually sheriffs or the like) and bad guys (horse thieves, Indians, bank robbers, etc.) fighting in a town that looks like it wouldn't be a terrible place to visit.  Sure, it looks a little dirty and there's no running water, but where else can you order a sarsaparilla in a bar and not get any weird looks?  In the traditional Western, there are a lot of broad landscape shots, showing how open and rich the country is, and some Westerns will explore that openness, only to return to the warmth of the town at the end.

The Proposition is not that kind of Western.  It may take place in the 1880s, but the location alone makes this film noteworthy.  Instead of America's vast frontier, this movie takes place in Australia.  Not Australia, land of lobsters, wine and the Great Barrier Reef, either.  This is the Outback.  It is as wide and vast as America's western vista, but it is intimidating instead of inspiring.  This is a land that painted in brown and red, with dust and blood baked by the sun into everything you see.  This is Australia, the continent-sized penal colony.

With that in mind, it should not be surprising to learn that this is not a typical Western plot.  The movie begins with a shootout, where Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike Burns are outmanned and outgunned.  They are soon captured by the local law, specifically Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone).  Apparently, Captain Stanley is hell-bent on "civilizing" Australia, or at least making is resemble England in manners, if not appearances.  The biggest lawbreakers (and thus, the most uncivilized force) around is Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) and his gang.  Until recently, that gang included Charlie and Mike, but Arthur's bloodthirsty tendencies caused a rift between the brothers.  Captain Stanley knows this and wants Arthur dead.  He makes Charlie a proposition: Charlie has a few days to find Arthur, kill him, and return to town, or else Mike will be hanged.  If Charlie is successful, both he and Mike get a legal pardon.

Of course, nothing's ever that simple.  Charlie has to contend with a bounty hunter (John Hurt) and angry Aborigines on his quest to reach Arthur, and then has to decide whether to kill his brother or not.  Captain Stanley's job is not much easier.  The complete Burns gang (Charlie and Mike included) recently murdered an entire family, pausing only to rape the pregnant wife.  Allowing any member of the gang to go free causes considerable distress among the townsfolk.  The town wants their pound of flesh, regardless of who is the greater evil.

The Proposition is an interesting movie because there is no character with a clear-cut high moral ground.  Yes, Captain Stanley wants to "civilize" Australia, but what does that mean?  He brought his young wife to a a lonely wasteland, where they put up a small picket fence and have tea on their porch.  These little touches of Britishness are almost tragic in this environment.  These details quietly ask "Who is this guy kidding?"  Stanley's entire motivation is so out of sync with his environment that it is almost funny.  He believes in himself, though, and is willing to kill almost anyone in town to protect the captive Mike Burns from lynching.  Charlie Burns is not as complex; he is a bad man that wants to save his delicate (possibly retarded) younger brother.  Killing Arthur might even be a relief to Charlie.  Arthur doesn't show up until halfway through the film, but lives up to the hype.  He is mean and without conscience, but he recites poetry and loves to hear Irish ballads.  He really doesn't seem bad until he gets around so-called "civilized" folk.

The cast here is very good.  It's always nice to see Guy Pearce in a decent movie, because the man can act.  Here, he balances familial duty and conscience well.  Ray Winstone does a great job as the Captain.  He shows such toughness around men, but shows his weakness with his wife (Emily Watson), although not to her.  The supporting cast is fine in relatively one-dimensional roles.  Emily Watson is a frightened and lonely wife, surrounded by men who could conceivably rape her with little notice.  David Wenham is decent as the highest local authority, acting within the bounds of British law, but not necessarily applying those laws well in Australia.  John Hurt does a nice job as the weathered bounty hunter.  Tom Budge is eerie as a Burns gang killer with a heavenly voice.  Danny Huston steals the show, though.  The oddities in his character make him very likable in the quiet Outback scenes, but terrifying when he is on the warpath.

Nick Cave's script (yes, Nick Cave the musician) clearly wants this movie to be on par with the best Sam Peckinpah Westerns, and it comes very close.  The only difference between this movie and, for instance, The Wild Bunch, is that this movie doesn't really make you root for the main character.  Instead, you sympathize with Ray Winstone and maybe Danny Huston.  Director John Hillcoat is relatively inexperienced, but it doesn't show here; he does a fantastic job with the bleak scenery, the mood, and the actors.  Ultimately, though, the lack of character for Guy Pearce to work with hampers this film.  This isn't a fun viewing experience, so having a sympathetic main character is essential to a good ending.  Despite this flaw, the film retains a sense of brutal authenticity.  American Westerns don't make the Old West look like much fun (most of the time), but this Western feels like hell.

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