My favorite horror flicks are such because they have terrified and disturbed me. The greatest Westerns I've seen have thrilled me. Never did I imagine that a movie could combine the feeling of the two and provide me with an experience I'll not soon forget.
The Proposition is just such a movie. The cult-famous protopunk musician Nick Cave has (in his first produced screenplay) given us a flick that has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into view by his co-conspirator, director John Hillcoat. I almost don't know what to say that would do this film justice - to the majesty it presents us for highs, and the rotted soul that lies within.
In 1880's Australia, Captain Stevens is a man with an unenviable position. Placed in the Outback by his British superiors, his task is to "civilize" the land. A gang of roving thugs led by the Burns brothers, having long terrorized the territory, have recently slaughtered an entire family and must be brought to justice. In the film's opening sequence, Stevens captures two of them, albeit after they have stopped riding with their older brother Arthur, the leader of the gang. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and young, brain-addled Mikey are in custody when Stevens makes Charlie an interesting propostion: find and kill Arthur, or Mikey will be hanged by the neck until he is dead. Knowing that Charlie cares more about his brother's life than his own, Stevens is sure the situation he has put in motion will sort itself out. Therefore, his superior from the Isles (a remarkably chilling David Wenham of The Lord Of The Rings) will realize that he is worthy of being in command down here, and that he alone possesses the fortitude to tame these lawless savages.
Never mind the fact that Stevens' wife Martha (Emily Watson) has been shielded from the horrors prevalent in this newly shaped society, one that sometimes must be carved out in blood and pain. He wants nothing more than to keep her from realizing this situation, the realities of violence he deals with (and hands down) daily, and tries to keep it from his doorstep. By the end of the film it is more than obvious such a sentiment is unrealistic, and perhaps dangerous.
The Proposition is an amazing film, and basically almost flawless. There's an interesting juxtaposition between the untamed Outback and the arrogant insistence of the British to turn it into something resembling London in the desert. The scenes where Emily Watson strolls around in her Victorian-era finest, seemingly oblivious to her surroundings as she goes about her business, are almost surreal; much like Stevens working on a typical English garden in his front yard, which is lushly green against dirty brown - an exercise in futility if there ever was. Contrast this with the utter squalor of the Burns gang, grime-covered and raw. Side note: this is, without a doubt, just the filthiest looking Western I've ever seen, and it's actually for the betterment of the film, as it adds a veneer of realism to the proceedings. Remember those old commercials where Sally Struthers would fundraise for the starving kids in Ethiopia and whatnot, where you could literally see flies alighting on these poor children's eyeballs? That's what this feels like - flies in almost every single solitary scene and a layer of sweat and dirt on roughly every onscreen character; you can SMELL this movie.
The characters fairly live and breathe, and are so well written - give Cave his due, certainly - but most of that must be laid at the feet of the actors portraying them. Even the smaller roles, such as Richard Wilson as Mikey Burns or Wenham's slimy and officious bastard, are gems of understated emotion or unchecked fear. Gifted veteran John Hurt enters the picture as a drunk of a bounty hunter (one gets the feeling that in an American version of the story, this would be a perfect Robert Duvall cameo) for a couple of scenes. And the main roles are impeccably cast. Watson is a frail flower afraid to bloom in a hostile environment that can offer her no sustenance. Ray Winstone, in role after role - especially his mad-dog portrayal of Jack Nicholson's right hand man in The Departed - has done nothing but impress the holy hell out of me recently; his Stevens is at once a man of brutality and dedication to his job, and loving kindness and dedication to his wife. As the enigmatic and wholly psychotic Arthur, Danny Huston illustrates that his family's lineage of talent has not passed him by. When he is on the screen, he is commanding, magnetic; you can see why men follow him and fear him in equal measure. Then there's Guy Pearce. What to say? I, for one, think he is easily as talented as Russell Crowe (his fellow countryman who has thus far recieved more accolades for his work), but just look at Pearce's choices in material. There's more variety and there's been more asked of him as an actor; from film to film, piece to piece, you just can't fault the guy in anything he's done, and this is just more of the (seemingly) easy brilliance we've come to expect of him. I am personally in awe of the man and find many of his films - Memento, Ravenous, and L.A. Confidential immediately come to mind - on my list of favorites.
Director John Hillcoat manages to blend unflinching violence and a strange beauty in one, personified by the beautiful Australian sunsets and vistas, and the life and death struggle of survival from day to day in a place so unforgiving. When I said before that it feels like The Proposition blends horror and Western styles, well, that isn't entirely accurate. But this flick IS as intense, as disturbing - probably more so - as much of what passes for studio horror these days. It goes to dark places regarding what humans are capable of and isn't afraid to keep going deeper. There are moments where a lot of people would look away if they knew what was coming, but said moments are so quick and vicious there's no chance to do so.
Cave, in tandem with Warren Ellis, also contributes a fine score as well (perhaps unsurprisingly), one that represents the mood of the film rather well. Hillcoat and his cinematographer Benoit Delhomme do a fine job of showing us all the dirt and beauty I mentioned before. Steve Courtney, who has worked on other filmed-in-Australia projects like Pitch Black and House Of Wax, handles the FX and while it's not overwhelming, you definitely know it's there when it shows up. All of these come together to create a movie that is undeniably a Western, but one unlike most of us are used to seeing; this is Australian, through and through, and has an unmistakable air of otherness about it. It's all very unique.
The DVD has a decent selection of special features; there's a behind-the-scenes piece that is very good (running somewhere between forty-five minutes to an hour or so) that covers pretty much all the aspects of the production, and about ten minutes of deleted scenes. Hillcoat and Cave contribute a commentary that, while technically decent and all, is a tad dry - not boring, exactly, but not what you'd call energetic. Still, there's some interesting anecdotes about the production and it's all fairly informative. Finally, there's a still gallery and some trailers.
The Proposition is a remarkable film; it's not what you'd call an action flick but there's certainly some excitement, not a horror movie but it's not afraid to disturb you. I'd call it a damn fine Western - if you take into account that you'd be travelling a few thousand miles west over the Pacific. You should take the journey. . .you might be surprised at what you find over there.