the proposition (2006)
"'When?' said the moon to the stars in the sky. 'Soon' said the wind that followed him home". When last we met, it was on the occasion of Robert Altman bidding farewell to some of Hollywood's forgotten genres. If you scroll down a bit, you'll see that one of those genres I mentioned was the western. Well, today I am here to tell that that sentiment is not entirely merited. I'm also here to tell you that it is. In a way. Bear with me here. This time around I'm here to talk about director John Hillcoat's shoot-em-up, bloodfest, exercise in brutality known as The Proposition. In one way this film marks a triumph, because it returns the badass, gunslinging outlaws known as cowboys back to the saddle and back to the big screen. However, in another way, it cements the feeling that the classic style of the genre is dead by being absolutely nothing like the classic westerns. The genre has been slowly withering away since the 1950's, but many of the recent forays into the old west (Unforgiven excluded) have been met with little public interest and a genuine lack of anything that made the western genre what it was in the first place. Evolution, however, is a natural process in movies, and no genre seems to stay the same for very long in Hollywood. One thing is for certain: In the western world of The Proposition, there's sure as hell no place for John Wayne.
The one question that begs asking, however, is: is Australia even considered the west? or is this the first in a new genre of easterns? (k, I'll admit it, that was kinda lame). The decision to set the film in the Australian outback was a very interesting one, and the good part about it is; it works. It's a good clue to the audience that they're not going to be getting any sort of standard western tale when they see camels pulling a stagecoach through town. In the days of yore, westerns starred a slew of tough-guy performers with grizzled jaws and just the right amount of grit. They were the kings of the frontier, sleeping out under the stars around a campfire, never running from a duel when the wrong outlaw crossed their path, and always tipping their cap respectfully as the women-folk strolled by. This age of prosperity for the genre is always pegged as beginning with John Wayne's rise to fame in 1939's Stagecoach, and I personally peg it as ending somewhere in the early 60's with the introduction of the Italian films that came be known as Spaghetti Westerns. The westerns of the 40's and 50's were the tales of virtuous men protecting their stake in the open range, always ready to fight any in-jun or varmint that came lookin for trouble. The Spaghetti Westerns, however, depicted the cowboys mostly as ruthless bounty hunters, personified by Clint Eastwood's characters in such Sergio Leone pictures as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. Maybe these westerns, and the American westerns subsequent to this movement from directors like Peckinpah, were more true to just what cowboys were really like, but that doesn't mean it made for better movies. The days of the altruist cowboys are done, and only the cold-blooded mercenary cowboy remains. Here, in the year 2006, Hillcoat delivers us a vision of the western that, I'm sure, Leone would have approved of. In The Proposition, the west is depicted as a sweltering Hell, a wasteland of rot and decay where no one, I mean no one, is innocent. Flies swarm over every character, living and dead, their skin consistently covered in both sweat and blood. Each gunshot rips through the theater with a brutality all too real, prompting one of the few people in my nearly-empty screening to actually get up and leave. Like The Wild Bunch in its day, The Proposition is not for the faint of heart. The film follows Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns, and Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley. The parallel stories present use two characters on opposite sides of the law that are just about equal on a moral level. Part of the world that the film revolves around is one that denounces morality, relying on loyalty as the only code of ethics for its characters to follow. The theme of family is brought up time and time again, making the events all the more poignant. I know I referred to this film as a gorefest, but that doesn't mean it lacks in smarts as its characters are all well-developed and its storyline follows a well-structured, though slightly packed, narrative line toward a great conclusion. Nick Cave isn't a renowned screenwriter, and I hear that he knocked this one off in about 3 weeks, but it's solid, he did a great job. When it comes to a film full of violence, most audiences seem to delight in the gore (as with the Saw films or Hostel), I don't think it's going out on a limb to say that not many will be thrilled by the gore in The Proposition. It's real, it's in your face, it's designed, like everything else in the film, to remind the viewer that they probably wouldn't ever want to live in the outback of the late 1800's. It does its job.
A film like this one is good, not for the sum of its parts, but for the individual parts themselves. When looking at the film, it's nothing incredibly fantastic, but each aspect of the production is top-notch. The best thing about the film, and the thing that makes a theatrical experience of it so rewarding, is the cinematography. Hillcoat's blend of color and gritty texture gives it a fantastic look. Each shot is framed to perfection, with the action adequately spread across the entire frame. This is where The Proposition most resembles Leone's work because it's one of the best films for cinematography that I've seen in a while. See this in the theater, or on the biggest big-screen you can find and you're sure to be wowed. Anything involving a sunset comes across as especially beautiful. I wish it had had a score to match, as that would have completed the Leone package, but alas this one reminds me of what Once Upon a Time in the West would have been without Morricone's fantastic melodies to set the tone. We're treated to some kind of obviously forgettable music, because I can't remember what it was now that I try to think of it. A single guitar? I don't know. Whatever. The script, as I've already mentioned, is a very good piece of work. I wish that Pearce's character had been made more of the main focus of the film, because at many times we feel left without a main character. I also didn't feel that he was as developed as he could have been, but keeping him at a distance and slightly anonymous may have been the intention, so who am I to say? Other than that it plays as a good family drama with plenty of dynamic scenes. The cast plays out wonderfully with alot of familiar faces popping up. Though no big-name stars appear, I almost positive I had seen just about everyone before. The "villain" character (well, never mind, there really is no villain) is played by Danny Huston. It's the standout role of the movie and he does a very good job for his limited screen time. Emily Watson gives a good performance as the wife of Captain Stanley. Pearce's performance is solemn and quiet, which is just what the film calls for, so no complaints there. Hillcoat takes all of these great elements, blends them together, and serves up a good looking picture. I might even watch it again sometimes when it's on DVD, though I wouldn't call it buy-worthy. Though it seems to be pulling in pretty cruddy business in its theatrical run, that's never really stopped movies before. I'd look for this one to really turn some heads on DVD and maybe people will pay attention to it. With Brad Pitt's new film entitled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it may be time for a new generation of Hollywood westerns (although that's what most have been saying for the last 30 years and it has yet to happen). The trouble with the modern western seems to be that we're so far removed from the old west, as far as chronology goes, that we can no longer see it as anything but ancient history. In the 30's and 40's, when these films were first being released, the time period they were depicting was only about 40 - 50 years earlier. (They're akin to the WWII films and films about the 50's and 60's that Hollywood knocks off so easily these days.) I feel that one reason these films no longer work is that no one seems to be able to really make it look as authentic as they once did. I tried sitting through Tombstone once and couldn't take how silly Val Kilmer looked with a moustache. The great part about The Proposition is that it doesn't feel quite so forced. It's natural and far more real than any recent western, and for that it gets my approval.
I've said about all I can and then some, The Proposition is one of the few films released this year that is actually worth your time to see. Forget the other junk and try to track this one down, you're sure as hell not going to find anything better. A tiding of things to come, maybe, but most likely just an anomaly in the slow trickle of western films that will most likely just end sooner or later. It's slightly encouraging in one way just to see a rider on horseback, gun in hand, making his way across a wide-open frontier. I'll be on the lookout for more things from Cave and Hillcoat in the near future, they're sure to impress. And so, The Proposition gets a thumbs up from me