Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shootout at High Noon: The Proposition

The Proposition (John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat’s is one of those directors who probably will never become a household name by the simple nature of the projects he chooses and the style with he approaches said material. For the former, the type of projects chosen, his choices are never quite mainstream even though they succeed in attracting big name stars and for the latter, his style, he is very careful to do things in his own way which is to take his time in setting a mood and to have the audience truly get a sense of the location where the action occurs. There are moments of high drama and moments of sheer violence, but they always emerge out of the story’s context and never feel gratuitous. Such is the storytelling technique adopted when he took the directing helm for 2005’s gritty anti-western, The Proposition.

I have always found The Proposition to be a curious affair for one particular reason that, while not making much of a difference at the end of the day, struck me nonetheless. The movie is set during the 1880s in what is commonly referred to as the Australian outback yet features any Australian characters. In fact, the only true Australians in the film are the indigenous people, but of course at that time in the country’s history they were relegated to measly jobs and mistreated/ totally ignored by the whites. Other than that, everybody is either first generation English or Irish. Kind of funny when you consider that one of the stars of the picture, Guy Pierce, is in fact Australian (English-born but grew up in the down-under). I am somewhat familiar with the history of Australia and how it was used as a purgatory of sorts at one time for criminals who originated from the other nations in the Commonwealth. I suppose that played a role when screenwriter Nick Cave chose the nationalities of the principle characters. In that sense it adds some historical context to the movie, even though in makes little difference in terms of how the film’s plot develops.

What character there are in The Proposition which concern the viewer exist as opposite forces, with the hard line of the law separating the two. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) has at long last captured two of the Burns brothers, Charlie (Guy Pierce) and younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). They are not of the worst of the trio however, for Arthur (Danny Huston), a savage monster masquerading as a human being, is still at large somewhere in the outback. The Captain does not mince words, and plainly offers Charlie an opportunity to earn a pardon and save Mickey from hanging: go forth into the outback, find Arthur, and kill him. Do so before Christmas morning, 9 days from then, or Mickey will hang like a Christmas ornament on an evergreen. 

It seems as if even those western films that make conceited efforts to go against the grain always fall back onto some elements which are trademarks of the genre. What is different are the nationalities of the characters (English and Irish), the setting (the Australian outback during Christmas time) and the level of graphic violence, which at times goes through the roof.  Something that I have often associated with the wild wild west, and this arguably can be taken as a stereotype, is the notion of myth building, or legendary stories and characters. In this case, it is the existence of the Burns brothers, who have been on the run for some time already. Their reputation, especially that of the eldest sibling, Arthur, has grown to legendary status due to the horrendous nature of his crimes and his seeming invincibility. Many have tried to capture him, all have ended in puddles of blood and guts. Yes, blood and guts. Now Charlie is caught in an unenviable position between Arthur and Mikey. The former probably deserves death and the latter saving, but facts are facts, and the most important remaining fact is the both are his brothers. It is the stuff of rich drama, the sort of story one might find in a play, only this one is for the silver screen.  The stakes are very high and the legendary status of the Burns brothers gives the film a greater sense of importance than otherwise would have been the case in the hands of a different screenwriter and director. For the viewer it feels as if he or she is watching ‘The Story’ of the Burns brothers as opposed to ‘a story’ featuring the Burns brothers. There is a great use of music and song as well that heightens the sense of history behind the story and the characters. 

With some praise being awarded to the nature of the drama at hand involving the bandits, I shall now, ironically enough, take some away. Yes, the weight of the overall plot surrounding the Burns brothers was sufficiently interesting to hold this viewer’s attention and despite that I did want to learn of how their story would end, by the midway point of the film it dawned on me that I wanted to spend more time with Captain Stanley and his wife Martha, played by Emilty Watson. The Captain is a good man, although his career and obsession with ‘civilizing this land’ has beaten down on him after so many years. One gets the sense that his heart is in the right place, but his mind has been tortured by the crimes he investigated and the terrible folk who have walked into his jail cells. His wife’s importance grows tenfold, for she acts as a beacon of moral support. The scene revealing that even she is in accordance with the flogging of young Mikey (who was involved in an awful crime of rape and murder) comes as a grand shock, not only to Stanley but to the viewer too. All of a sudden, the world is tilting upside down. Both Ray Winstone and Emily Watson give beautiful performances, with Winstone as the policeman, psychologically beaten up by the ugliness around him but hell bent on solving the issue of the Burns brothers, and Watson as the increasingly frustrated wife who tires of seeing her husband off to work where he has recently spent far more time than at home. Despite it all, there is an undeniable love between the two, one that shall not waver regardless of the personal obstacles they must overcome. I was thankful that Ray Winstone really was a co-star star and not merely a supporting player. He gets a decent amount of screen time, thus allowing the viewer to follow his story closely.

The issue I have with the Burns brothers’ side of the overall plot can be singled out rather simply. While Guy Pierce is a fine, fine actor who has solid screen presence, there is not much to his character. The movie tries to give him little ticks (he seems to hold particular pride about being Irish), but overall I was under the impression that he served as a blank slate of sorts for the moral dilemma forced upon him. Mikey is the youngest, the most innocent looking, which makes his status as a crazy criminal a bit bizarre and outstanding, and then there is Arthur (Danny Huston is quite good in the role by the way), the eldest Burns brother, who clearly as a certain education (he understands and appreciates poetry and song), speaks with a sophisticated tongue (can it be said that Arthur is sort of charming? I think so...), yet he is a hideous beast of a man when engaging in his crimes. Both Mikey and Arthur possess intriguing, almost contradictory characteristics about them. Where exactly does this leave Charlie? Well, maybe he is a hybrid of the two, but the script does not give him much that would even hint at that. This is no fault of Pierce, who looks gruff and tough enough, but that is pretty much it. John Hurt has two brief appearances as a bounty hunter, but neither serves any true purpose, especially the first, during which he shares a drink with Pierce’s character while laughing at Darwin’s theory about monkeys being man’s closest ancestor. Uh-huh, man is like a monkey therefore man is like an animal in this wild and savage outback. A cute scene but one that does virtually nothing for the story and lacks subtlety to boot. It really feels as though even during filming the filmmakers were wondering what they could do with the Charlie character, and since there was nothing defining about him, they have him interact with other bizarre people.

The Proposition pulls no punches when it comes to the violence, nor should it. The time and place where the story is set is inherently violent, untamed if you will. Had the film held back, I would have been supremely disappointed. The deaths look like they really, really hurt and even the tactics employed by the law enforcers are a testament to how depressingly grim living in this part of the world must have been. The flogging scene alone is pretty intense, but it was an intense place, so that is that. Director John Hillcoat has a great understanding for mise-en-scène and tone. Had there been a superior balance between the Captain Stanley and Charlie Burns character, The Proposition would easily have become one of my favourite westerns. It is still a very good one, but I have trouble giving it more than that.

Did Bill join the Burns brothers? Find out at his Movie Emporium.


Rachel [ f.g.i. ] said...

Love Guy Pearce. Love Danny Huston. Love THE PROPOSITION. Such a great western!

thevoid99 said...

Definitely one of my favorite Westerns.

I loved the look of it where the cinematography is just a marvel to watch. At the same time, because of the location. It's a very dirty, gritty film and I really appreciate what John Hillcoat was doing with the story. Even as Nick Cave's script is really one of intrigue along with the score he did with Warren Ellis.

The scene for me that stood out is the scene where Mikey is being whipped as it's a very uncomfortable moment to watch.

I'm glad you and Bill enjoy this. It's what I believe what a Western should be.

edgarchaput said...

@Rachel: Danny Huston really does bring his character of Arthur Burns to life and more than just an ordinary killer. It's a wonderful performance.

@thevoid99: I did not spend any time discussing the cinematography, but I agree that it looked gorgeous. The filmmakers did wonders to capture the harshness of the land.

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