Underrated: The Proposition

Ever since its inception, the western has always remained exclusive to its native country: America. No other nation on Earth dared to explore the western through cinema, for its themes, ideas and stories were firmly rooted in American mythology. By the time John Ford had fully mastered it, Sergio Leone stylized it, and Clint Eastwood matured it, there  seemed to be little left to say about the West. It has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years, yes, but rarely is anything new brought to the table. A major exception to this is the transposition of this genre into a landscape which carries the potential for its own ripe atmospheric tendencies and carries a ferocity all its own: the Australian Outback. With a past as bloody and violent as the American west, it feels right that if any other nation is suited to interpreting the western, it should be Australia. The parallels are many: from its British settlers and convicts doubling as cowboys and outlaws, to its aboriginal tribes standing in as the “uncivilized” natives. In John Hillcoat’s violent yet meditative film, The Proposition, he certifies this foreign translation with his own raw cinematic style, and is backed up by some of the finest character actors in contemporary cinema.

The primary focus of The Proposition is centered upon a band of three brothers by the name of Burns. In a blazing opening gunfight, the younger two brothers are forced to hand themselves over to a British captain governing a local town. The middle of these brothers, Charlie, is offered a proposition, which forces him to choose between two uneasy futures. His mission is to go out into the wilds of the outback and find his estranged older brother, Arthur. Upon finding him, he has but one task: kill him and bring his body back. Otherwise, his younger brother Mikey will be sent to the gallows to hang. Without hesitation, Charlie goes out in search of Arthur, leaving young Mike behind in a jail cell. Meanwhile, Captain Stanley discovers issues of his own when he and his wife are confronted with the harshness of their unfamiliar surroundings and by a lawman who will stop at nothing to see the Burns family punished.

At the front and center of The Proposition are the exemplary performances, beginning with Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns. Though his character arc is somewhat predictable, Charlie’s journey is nevertheless compelling, and Pearce’s understated yet completely committed portrayal behind a shaggy beard and emaciated figure certifies him as one of the most underrated actors working today. The other standout performance here comes from Danny Huston, another tremendously under appreciated actor whose talents are inherited from his father, the great director John Huston. Huston’s performance as the deranged Arthur is a thing of expected terror and surprising beauty. Reminiscent of his father’s speech cadences, Huston imbues every line of dialogue with a genuine gravitas and a sense of subtle poetic grandeur. In fact, Arthur Burns’ character is not psychologically far off from Colonel Kurtz’s in Apocalypse Now, so lost is he in his own delusional view of the world. Finally, Ray Winstone does some of his most complex work as Captain Stanley, who must deal with the morality of upholding the law and being able to return home to his wife.

In terms of its cinematic language, John Hillcoat’s western is that of both worlds, evoking the harsh, unforgiving, and barren ocean of the Outback, while also leaning upon impressionistic moments to enter the subjectivity of both Charlie and Arthur Burns. The photography comes closest to Sergio Leone’s films, which were also of a hallucinatory nature, and where the viewpoint of any single character could never be fully trusted.  Adding to the impressionistic nature of this otherwise gritty and realistic film is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting and subtly moving score, which helps to bring strong but unsentimental feeling to several of the film’s key emotional scenes. Though there are several bloody action scenes, which are suitably unsparing in ferocity, the memorable scenes are the quieter ones, especially those between Stanley and his wife, as well as the deeply intriguing moments between Arthur and Charlie. Ultimately, the film’s questions are many. Does sanity end when one is forced into an impossible corner? Where does morality live in an immoral time? What worth are blood ties in an uncivilized land? The answers Hillcoat unearths are far from easy.

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~ by romancinema on March 15, 2012.

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