Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Proposition

2006 Sundance Film Festival

★ ★
The best part about The Proposition is that it is a glimpse of Australian history that few of us know anything about. Screenwriter Nick Caves, who is primarily a composer, tells the fascinating the story of rival factions striving for control of the Australian outback in the 19th century. While we are never given dates, director John Hillcoat said in the Sundance Q&A that it roughly represents the second generation of imports, or children of the first convicts. The battle for supremacy is between the Irish and the British, with the aborigines tragically caught in-between.

The Burns gang is Irish, led by the educated, perceptive and slightly psychopathic elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) no longer rides with the gang, apparently sickened by their wanton cruelty. The movie starts with British soldiers ambushing Charlie and his retarded and hyper-sensitive brother Mike (Richard Burns). They are seeking justice for the rape and killing of a local white family by Arthur and his gang. British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Charlie and Mike and gives Charlie a proposition—find your brother Arthur and kill him or your beloved brother Mike will be hanged on Christmas Day.

This is a gritty western that boldly strives for realism, complete with obscene and graphic violence, yellow teeth and nasty flies. (According to the cast at Sundance, the realism was intensified by filming entirely on location, sometimes in 130 degree temperatures with the flies as constant companions. “Everyone swallowed flies,” said Hilcoat.) It deglamorizes the period in much the same way that Eastwood’s Unforgiven did in 1992.

Guy Pearce puts in a solid performance as the silent type made up of sinewy strength and moral fiber. Winstone is also terrific as the ethically conflicted British captain, who vows to civilize the land, but recognizes that savagery is not the solution. John Hurt turns in a fine little performance. But I was most impressed with Danny Huston (John Huston’s son, Anjelica’s brother and former husband to Virginia Madsen (Sideways). His character is rich and multi-dimensional and Huston plays it beautifully—educated and intelligent, lover of Australian sunsets, sensitive Irish patriot, leader of the family and sadistic executor of frontier justice. Even after stomping people to death and beheading others I still couldn’t help feeling for the character.

(I spoke to Huston after the performance and asked him if it wasn’t unsettling being caked in blood and gore and playing such a ruthless character. He said it was a lot of fun. OK, so he goes to a different school than Daniel Day-Lewis. Anyway, I thought he carried the movie.)

It would be hard for me to recommend this as entertainment. It was slow-moving at times, relying on cinematography and landscape to keep your attention. And the blood and guts were way too much—I found myself closing my eyes in parts. But it does provide a rare glimpse of a part of history that Australians still grapple with to this day.


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