Brutal Realism

“The Proposition” makes screen violence shocking again

The fly wranglers who worked on “The Proposition” must have been very busy. This Australian Western is almost all scuzzy atmosphere. Filmed in extreme heat, it captures the desert so vividly that you might start sweating in sympathy. Its male characters’ faces never seem to have felt the touch of a razor blade or washcloth. Hillcoast de-romanticizes the 19th century, cutting off nostalgia at the pass. His film isn’t free of the past’s bonds, though—it owes a major debt to Clint Eastwood and Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist Westerns but seems content to reprise their innovations.

“The Proposition” begins as the Burns brothers and their gang are having a gunfight with the police. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his much younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). He tells Charlie that he will hang Mikey unless Charlie tracks down and kills his even more violent older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). That’s the only way he can earn Mikey’s freedom. Stanley’s conflicted about his job, especially since his wife Martha (Emily Watson) runs the danger of exposure to the region’s bloodshed. Charlie agrees to hunt Arthur, but in the meantime, Mikey is whipped to a state near death at the urging of Stanley’s boss Eden Fletcher (David Wenham). Charlie finally meets Arthur after getting skewered by an Aboriginal man’s spear.

Screen violence has increased exponentially since the bloody finale of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” but “The Proposition” manages to make it shocking again. Its carnage comes in carefully measured intervals—the opening shootout is as jarring a kickoff as anything I’ve seen in recent years. Hillcoat uses sound to boost the impact of his violence. After a woman is punched in the face, blood drips off her nose and chin, amplified as if it were rainfall. Unfortunately, “The Proposition” only really comes to life when someone’s getting shot.

Singer Nick Cave’s screenplay relies too heavily on familiar Western tropes—the lawman trying to bring civilization to a frontier, family bonds tested by violence. At best, these have become a modern mythology; at worst, they’re clichés. Cave’s music shows a fascination with country and blues at their most Gothic and melodramatic, and this interest—transposed to cinema—permeates “The Proposition.” His score, composed with violinist Warren Ellis, evokes these genres without ever imitating them. It’s no wonder that Johnny Cash wound up covering his song “The Mercy Seat.” However, Cave’s better at creating a personal spin on his favorite American art in music than with the written word.

There’s a large hole where the heart of “The Proposition” should be. Individually, Pearce, Huston, and Wilson give fine performances, but they don’t have much chemistry together. The conflict between them seems artificial—it stems from the genre’s demands rather than the lives of these particular individuals. The film would gain from a little more background and character development; starting in mid-shootout isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it’s rather typical of its approach to storytelling.

“The Proposition” relies on its cast’s physicality to fill in many gaps. This approach doesn’t always work, but it brings some interesting results. Winstone carries the baggage of a string of roles as Cockney thugs. A former boxer, he looks menacing even in the most genteel surroundings. Hillcoat’s choice of him as the film’s enforcer of justice and civilization suggests a great deal of skepticism about these qualities. Indeed, Captain Stanley’s talk recalls the way contemporary politicians have reduced freedom and democracy to meaningless buzzwords. He’s torn in two by the casual violence of his work. On the other hand, we’re told that Mikey is a rapist and killer, but once he goes to jail, he becomes a vulnerable waif. Wilson looks a little like the teenage Leonardo Di Caprio, and one can imagine a director casting him as Kurt Cobain.

On a purely visual level, “The Proposition” is fairly impressive, but it doesn’t work very well as a whole. It conjures up the past convincingly, but once it takes us there, it sets up a story filled with echoes of dozens of better films. Simply placing them in an Australian context—with Aboriginals taking the place of Native Americans—doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. As brutal and well imagined as “The Proposition” is, it’s a blood-soaked costume party.

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