Monday, April 24, 2006

The Proposition

2005, Australia, directed by John Hillcoat

It's pretty reductionist simply to pigeonhole The Proposition as an "Australian Western", since it adds layers of local meaning to the usual Western tropes, not least an exploration of the relationship between man and landscape that is a recurring theme in Australian cinema, whether dealing with Aboriginal or white characters. Set in the 1880's, the film tells two parallel stories, one involving a British officer (Ray Winstone) reflecting on the meaning of his job in the sweltering Queensland outback (where he and his wife - Emily Watson - attempt to preserve some measure of civility) and the other centered on two outlaw brothers, player by Guy Pearce and Danny Huston. 

Huston's character is an out-and-out psychopath (quite a contrast to the more insidiously nasty character he played in The Constant Gardener), whose brutality is depicted unflinchingly, as befits a film determined to cast aside any romantic notions of frontier life (most of the actors look absolutely filthy throughout the film). Director Hillcoat expertly cuts between the two stories, relieving the thuggery with cool interludes in the Winstone-Watson home (Watson looks as though she's about to float away most of the time), while effectively raising the tension as we move towards an inevitable final confrontation. The performances are very strong: Pearce is elemental underneath the layers of grime, while Winstone is simply outstanding, conveying a moving sense of his character's innate decency and moral dilemmas. Although Nick Cave's script is pared down to the point of mythology, his dissection of the wilder fringes of the colonial era in Australia rings true; the use of old photos over the credits underlines the sense of realism.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States