The Proposition

The Proposition


Reviewed by: Themroc

Much of the music that Nick Cave has written in his long and spectacular career, first with The Birthday Party and subsequently as a solo artist backed by the Bad Seeds, has been character- based. His songs with the Bad Seeds, in particular, are frequently structured as mini-narratives - short parables laced with a sense of doomed romance and tender beauty, punctuated by unforgiving brutality and graphic violence. It is therefore no great surprise that Cave’s first full credit as a screenwriter should be a western (albeit an Australian one), a genre of American film- making that has a tradition - particularly in the films of Ford, Peckinpah and Eastwood – of similarly mixing beauty (the landscapes) with savagery (the human beings that populate them).

Kicking things off with urgency, The Proposition opens in the middle of an ear-splitting gun fight. When the mayhem subsides as abruptly as it began, Cave wastes no time in setting up his narrative and does so with admirable economy. The battle has ended with fugitive outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey being captured by town marshal Morris Sergeant (Ray Winstone). Morris makes his prisoners a proposition: if Charlie will hunt down and kill his demonic brother Arthur (Danny Huston), and bring back his body by Christmas Day, then both he and Mikey will be granted a full pardon. If Charlie refuses, they will both hang. In accepting, Morris ventures, Charlie can not only save both himself and his young brother, but, by ridding the world of a dangerous psychopath, he can help redeem himself for his part in the rape and murder of a young family, one of whom – Eliza Watkins – was pregnant at the time.

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But having set up such a fascinating moral conundrum, neither Cave nor John Hillcoat, the film’s director, manage to make the most of it. Cave professes a loathing for “backstory”, particularly in flashback, complaining that it’s simply a clumsy technique for making explicit what should be implicit, and for giving undue importance to what is essentially background. I suspect he would also argue that it is simply an unnecessary sop to stupid or less attentive members of the audience who like to have everything spelled out for them in blinking neon capitals.

To be honest, I find it hard not to sympathise with this kind of rationale, but I think that the decision not to dramatise the obliteration of the Watkins family is nevertheless a bad one for three reasons.

Firstly, because although we are told that part of Charlie’s motivation for agreeing to Sergeant’s deal is to atone for past sins, we don’t know exactly what it is he’s atoning for or how complicit he was in the atrocities we hear about. Did he personally rape women and butcher children or was he a bystander? And what part did the young Mikey play? Since none of this is made clear, it becomes a little difficult to understand Charlie’s torment and self-loathing in anything other than the most abstract sense. It’s also difficult to appreciate his conflicting feelings for his elder brother or the task he has agreed to undertake. Does he hate Arthur, fear him or love him or is it a complex combination of all the above? The lack of hard detail about Charlie’s own bloodlust or capacity for brutality coupled with Guy Pearce’s inscrutably vague performance make it hard to tell and as the film progresses towards an inevitably downbeat conclusion, this becomes increasingly problematic. Since Charlie’s conflicted feelings toward Arthur are never properly dramatised, their resolution is bound to be both unsatisfactory and poorly motivated.

The rape scene’s absence also undermines any claims the film might otherwise make to a profound moral ambivalence. This was a flaw that similarly marred Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s one thing to hear a character say they killed women and children, but it’s quite another to actually witness them doing it. At one point Mikey (cast as a gratuitously beautiful young boy) is taken from his jail cell in violation of Sergeant’s agreement with Charlie and horse-whipped to within an inch of his life in front of the vengeful townsfolk. My natural response to his torture was a fairly prosaic horror informed only by his own bestial terror and demented shrieks of agony. But had I witnessed his participation in gang-rape and murder, I suspect that my response would have been considerably complicated by echoes of the petrified screams and the suffering of his own brutalised victims.

Finally, it is difficult to appreciate the limb that Sergeant goes out on by offering to release Charlie if he delivers him his brother’s carcass. When Sergeant’s bargain is discovered, it provokes outrage from the wealthy landowner he reports to, the town as a whole and even his own wife, whose miscomprehension of the situation helps bring her husband’s precarious house of cards down on top of them. But what exactly is the trade off he has made and how far is the townsfolk’s vindictive indignation and bloodlust, if not justified, then at least understandable? It’s impossible to tell since we are unable to judge how far their presumption of Charlie’s equal culpability is either warranted or misplaced. We’re given to understand that because Charlie is tormented by guilt that he somehow occupies a higher rung on the moral ladder than his unrepentant, remorseless elder brother. Yet devoid of substantive information and context, this kind of moral argument about the redemptive power of self-knowledge is meaningless.

The omission of these grey areas bleeds into the rest of the film resulting in disappointing characterisation, a weakness that becomes more apparent when, following the urgency of the film’s opening scenes, the narrative pace sags badly in the middle. Cave, as a lyricist, is used to telling rather than showing and his screenplay falls into this trap more than once. Characters and events aren’t dramatised so much as described and recounted. Apart from one particularly dreadful scene in which Sergeant’s wife Martha tells him about an overtly symbolic dream she has had, we learn very little about any of the characters that we haven’t already been told in Sergeant’s opening monologue. As a result, the performances that Hillcoat gets from an enormously talented cast are shallow and strangely uninspiring.

Guy Pearce, with nary a line of dialogue, suffers in a stoically impenetrable manner, but for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, he is basically reduced to a cipher, drifting somnambulant through the story in a fog. Danny Huston, one of the most talented and entertaining character actors currently making films, is the unlucky victim of miscasting. Described by Sergeant rather floridly as “an abomination”, he comes across instead as a wily Irish rogue. He looks suitably wolfish but, not only is his Irish accent lousy (I wish directors would desist from casting American “names” instead of indigenous talent), but his features and voice are simply too aristocratic for him to plausibly pass himself off as a feral savage.

Ray Winstone, cast against “type”, is asked to play vulnerable, confused and sensitive and then allowed to completely overdo it. After the flash of violence with which his character is introduced in the second scene (he breaks Mikey’s nose with the butt of his pistol), his character spends most of the rest of the film moping about on the brink of tears, mumbling diffidently, refusing to stand up for himself and passively allowing events and the whims of those around him to push him to the brink of annihilation. Emily Watson has a wretched time trying to breathe life into either her own underwritten role as Martha or her equally underwritten marriage, a union that, no matter how often they tearfully embraced and/or uttered simpering declarations of devotion, I struggled to believe in. Only John Hurt’s weird cameo really energises the story. Although I’m at a loss to explain what function his character served other than narrative padding, it was a relief whenever he reappeared and a disappointment when he was inevitably dispatched.

The Proposition is primarily intended as a parable about fratricide, violence and revenge, but the distracting issue preoccupying both Cave and Hillcoat seems, in fact, to be class. The brothers’ primeval savagery is somewhat redeemed (dramatically, at any rate) by their loyalty to one another, and the perpetually unshaven and unkempt Morris Sergeant, in spite of being infuriatingly spineless, is nevertheless depicted as fundamentally humane and sincere in his attempts to keep his word to Charlie, regardless of the latter’s crimes.

However, the immaculately turned-out aristocrats of the piece, insulated from the raw brutality of frontier life by their wealth and privilege, are depicted with transparent contempt. The wealthy and sadistic landowner that orders Mikey to be whipped is a caricature of the evil British colonialist bastard, complete with a clipped upper-class accent and hysterically pompous manner. Martha, for her part, betrays the hypocrisy of her Haute Bourgeois prissiness by baying for the blood of a defenceless young boy in the spurious name of justice. Yet when she gets what she wants, in spite of her husband’s appeals to her sense of self-preservation and mercy, she is so horrified by the spectacle that she collapses in a dead faint in front of the rest of the other spectators.

The Proposition is a handsome-looking film, and I predict that it will receive rapturous reviews from critics disinclined to look too far beneath its undeniably impressive surface. Much of the photography has a magnificence that shouldn’t be understated, and Cave’s haunting score (composed and performed with Bad Seed violinist Warren Ellis), although occasionally overbearing and intrusive, is frequently effective. There is also a gritty and visceral immediacy to the staging of the violence and set-pieces that really did grab me by the throat. But slick execution and production values do not alone make great cinema.

What’s missing from the film is nuanced character development, a proper investigation of the implications of its premise and, perhaps most surprising of all, poetry. Cave clearly has a prodigious talent for storytelling and is certainly not short of ideas. The question is whether or not he has the patience (and the inclination) to hone his craft as a screenwriter. Judging by the answers he has given in interviews to promote this film about how seriously he takes the job (he makes it sound like a hobby), and given that he has recently boasted that his new script was written in only two weeks, my guess is that the disappointing answer is “no”.

Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2005
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The Proposition packshot
In the 1880s, an Australian outlaw is offered a pardon if he tracks down and kills his psychotic elder brother.
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Read more The Proposition reviews:

Anton Bitel ****1/2
Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
Jennie Kermode ****

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Nick Cave

Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Richard Wilson, Robert Morgan, David Gulpilil, Tom Budge

Year: 2005

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia/UK


Sundance 2006

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