The Man With the Olden Gun

Washington City Paper | May 26, 2006
A morally questionable strategy employed to better a society is at the heart of The Proposition, an Australian take on the Western directed by John Hillcoat and written by basement-dwelling singer-songwriter Nick Cave. More spaghetti than classic, the film features guys who are less good and bad than they are highly ambiguous. And though there’s a sunset at the end, many characters are too—how to put this—dead to ride off into it.

Set in the outback in the 1880s, the film begins with a montage of gruesome photos and then moves to the capture of two of the men involved in the appalling crime depicted in the stills. Irish brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) sit with the English head of local law enforcement, Capt. Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). Intimidating in both body and attitude, Stanley offers Charlie a cruel deal: He and Mikey, an easily frightened simpleton, will be spared if Charlie finds and kills their brother Arthur (Danny Huston, son of John), who Stanley believes is the sibs’ ringleader. If Charlie doesn’t complete the task before Christmas, Mikey will hang. Charlie has nine days.

The Proposition is visually impressive—the dry, fly-ridden landscape is often overexposed to evoke the wilting heat of the sun, and scenes involving Stanley’s elegant wife, Martha (Emily Watson), often suggest Victorian portraits brought to life. The couple’s flower-dotted home stands in stark contrast to the harsh desert surrounding it, just as their loving relationship is at odds with the area’s ongoing conflict between white settlers and Aborigines, which Hillcoat portrays in increasingly grisly detail.

Cave’s story is most interesting when it focuses on Stanley, whose brutality at the beginning of the film is gradually revealed as merely an expedience. “I will civilize this land,” he tells Charlie, and though he tries to shield Martha from the particulars of realizing this ambition, she eventually finds them out. As the possibly misguided Stanley, Winstone is an intriguing mix of Tony Soprano and Master and Commander’s Jack Aubrey—an often quiet yet always commanding presence, stubborn in his against-the-grain calls and fully able to unleash the beast as need demands.

Pearce’s Charlie, gaunt, sweaty, and so ravaged as to embody his inner burden, is less compelling—which isn’t the actor’s fault. As Charlie travels alone—whether to find Arthur or simply to contemplate his choices is difficult to tell—and stares off into the sky, Cave emphasizes his tortured situation with whispered voice-over poetry. The Burnses may be killers and rapists, but they still quote verse, admire the beauty of their surroundings, and break into elegiac Irish ballads while ’round the campfire.

Perhaps the songwriter’s longtime fans will find such characters comfortably familiar instead of impossibly hackneyed. Perhaps they’ll also cozy up to his score, which leans toward sounds so melancholic as to be eye-rolling. The rest of us, however, will probably just marvel over how Cave’s penchant for the overblown causes The Proposition to waver between gripping and ponderous—a state as maddening as the decisions facing its characters.

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