In a Dusty Black Coat With a Red Right Hand
The Proposition / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 19, 2006 | Comments ()
“When,” said the moon to the stars in the sky
“Soon,” said the wind that followed the moon
“Who,” said the cloud that started to cry
“Me,” said the rider, dry as a bone
I love Westerns, but I find most of them unwatchable. The stories and settings are tailor-made for epics about love, death, betrayal; it’s a uniquely American genre, our own version of Shakespeare. But the Western’s heyday is a good 40 years gone, and it seems now that, at least most of the time, something gets lost in the translation from thought to script to film, and for every film like Unforgiven there’s another like The Postman. In fact, that’s one of the biggest problems facing the genre today: The need to change it, twist it, make it post-apocalyptic or overly stylized or full of broad, cheap humor. So it’s something of a minor miracle that director John Hillcoat’s latest film, The Proposition, manages to add a few updates to the classical Western while retaining and expanding upon all the expected themes of bloodlust, murder, bounty hunters, and brotherly disaffection. Hillcoat manages to sidestep the concept versus execution landmine by making the entire concept the execution. The Proposition is thinly plotted at best, but the film is more about the feel of the story and its impact on the viewer than any simplistic kind of conclusion to a storytelling arc. It’s an experiential, postmodern Western, and it totally works.
After serene opening credits set to a genre-typical acoustic theme, Hillcoat throws us right into the action with a gunfight between a group of soldiers and a few ragged-looking men and a couple of Asian prostitutes (ah, the West) defending themselves in a tin shack. Among the few men is Guy Pearce, who’s made a career out of gunfights where he’s holed up in a rotten old house, but this role is a far cry from the slick, manipulative detective he played in L.A. Confidential almost 10 years ago. Pearce is Charlie Burns, doing his best to shoot back at the surrounding lawmen and protect his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), who’s unarmed and balled up weeping on the floor. They’re outgunned and apprehended by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who locks up Mikey and cuts a deal with Charlie: Charlie and Mikey will be allowed to go free if Charlie kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), who’s on the lam and wanted for the grisly murders of a local family. Charlie has until Christmas, nine days hence, to do the deed, or Stanley will let Mikey hang.
And that’s pretty much it. Like I said, the plot’s really just an idea, a loose concept that Hillcoat lets float for just over 100 minutes. But screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, he of the Bad Seeds) manages to sustain the tension and energy by allowing his characters to live in a fully realized world, scraping out a brutal, dirty, sweaty existence in the Australian desert. Older Westerns had a flat, generic look, with easily distinguishable good guys and villains living in a land where things stayed pretty clean and no one seemed to perspire that much. But Hillcoat’s look at Australia in the late 19th century is frightening in its genuine grit, where flies hover over man and beast alike, and the lines between good and evil are harder to define. Charlie isn’t a rogue with a soft spot, and Stanley isn’t a hard-ass regulator with a concrete respect for the law; there are no easy characterizations or stereotypes here. Cave and Hillcoat seem to realize that good and bad aren’t separated by a big wall but merely extreme ends of the same spectrum, and it’s how far you’re willing to go to get what you want that dictates where on that continuum you land.
Charlie sets out to find Arthur and comes across a drunken bounty hunter named Lamb, played to the hilt by John Hurt. Charlie, if I can violently mix Western titles, is a pale rider with no name, and his lengthy scene in a run-down and deserted bar with Lamb is just one the many welcome tangents Cave lays out during the film. The insane Lamb is used to represent the hypocrisy of that era; he frequently remarks to Charlie that they are “white men, not beasts,” and don’t need to draw their guns or get into fights. Lamb is the furthest xenophobic extreme of Stanley, who stubbornly puts up with his surroundings by clinging to his repeated mantra: “I will civilize this land.” But for Hillcoat, this is a futile search. There is no peace or civilization to be had, just an endless series of retributive crimes and the dreadful waiting period in between.
Cave is in love with language, letting subtle dialogue cues serve to shed light on the characters. Stanley detests the desert, at one point gazing out at the sun-blasted expanses and muttering, à la Dorothy Parker, “What fresh hell is this?” Arthur fancies himself a philosopher, too, often reflecting upon man’s insignificance while gazing into the sunset. And Cave’s own words appear in a whispered voice-over while Charlie rides across the desert, an eerie poem about death and damnation and riders and guns and the usual Western stuff. But it isn’t cliched; in fact, it’s relentlessly cool. The Proposition does for Westerns what Rian Johnson’s Brick did earlier this year for neo-noir, and though it’s not as superior as Johnson’s film, it’s still a gripping adventure that focuses more on the means than the end.
Pearce’s performance here is always watchable and sometimes outright compelling. I’ve never felt he’s gotten the attention stateside that he deserves, and though he first showed up on American viewers’ radar with L.A. Confidential, his nuanced performance in Curtis Hanson’s noir potboiler was sadly overshadowed by the wattage of his costars. But he’s great here as a man willing to kill one brother to save another, and it’s a shame he doesn’t get to share more screen time with Huston, a soulless gunslinger who might be the closest thing in the film to an outright villain (he did, after all, rape a pregnant woman before killing her and slaughtering her family, so he’s a bit short on relatability). Charlie and Arthur partner up at one point and ride hard into town bent on vengeance, and the final sequence counters its predictability by presenting the violence in a stark, musicless manner that lends it disturbing weight. And when Charlie finally reaches the end, there’s no joy or sorrow in what he’s done or how he’s done it, just a kind of existential dread as he ponders a question that’s been posed to him with the last lines of the film: What are you going to do now? And his empty stare over the plains says it all.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.