The second entry in the Shootout At High Noon Marathon is beautiful to look at, as a matter of fact, desolation has never been more beautiful!
Screenplay By: Nick Cave
Directed By: John Hillcoat
Westerns have never been quite like The Proposition. Even the most brutal of Westerns has some semblance of life in it, a glimmer of hope. The Proposition isn’t just desolate, it’s dead. I was awestruck by how John Hillcoat and his location shooting were able to create a land that was the antithesis of what I think of when I think of the Western landscape. Australia, as Hillcoat has decided to show it, is dirty, grimy and a place where everything goes to die. Dreams die in this land, people die in this land, ideas die in this land, everything dies. Yet, there is beauty in the way they die, a striking quality in the savagery of the land. I couldn’t take my eyes off of what Mr. Hillcoat was allowing me to see, even when I thought not seeing may have been for the best.
As stated above, The Proposition eschews the usual glimmer of hope found in most Westerns. Hope is replaced with harshness and reality. There will be no cowboy riding to the rescue, no last heroic stand. Instead the viewer is slowly drawn into a state of absolute depravity. There isn’t a single good soul in The Proposition. Everyone has their vice, every person has a moment where they succumb to the monstrosity that is the Australian outback. The characters in this movie aren’t even what I would call bad, or evil. They are simply the products of a land that is bereft of life. That’s why Captain Stanley’s home sticks out so much. The Captain and his wife are attempting to bring life to a place that will not abide such a transgression.
Someone who looks for likable protagonists in their cinema will be disappointed by The Proposition. That doesn’t mean that The Proposition doesn’t give you characters that are interesting and engaging. I may not root for Captain Stanley, but watching him struggle to maintain control in a land where control can not exist is fascinating. I was enthralled every time Arthur Burns was on screen, such a reprehensible person yet he isn’t crazy, he’s simply molded himself to fit the land around him. In his screen play Nick Cave keeps his characters words sparse, and that is for the best. The characters in this world have very little to talk about, so why would they say a lot? Yet, they espouse wisdom in their matter of fact nature and seem to understand the harsh world they live in, even if they don’t want to.
It’s not surprising that the tag line that stuck with The Proposition was Captain Stanley’s utterance of, “I will civilize this land.” Whether it is the Captain, Charlie Burns, Eden Fletcher or even Arthur, they all want to bend the land to their will somehow. But, the man with the most will in this regard is Captain Stanley. The issue that the Captain faces is that you can’t civilize a land that does not want to be civilized. In his own actions he shows this, his handling of tracking down Arthur is just as uncivilized as the actions of anyone else in the film. Civility has no place in this land of death, and again that is why Captain Stanley’s home with its porcelain tea set and finely groomed lawn sticks out so much.
I’m not sure why I have struggled so much to pull my thoughts about The Proposition together. When I first saw this film a few years ago I really liked it, this time I was blown away by it. It shot right into the rarefied air of the movies I consider the best of all time. Yet here I am struggling to convey my thoughts about this wonderful picture. Maybe I’m being too harsh on myself, but for some reason I feel like I am not quite hitting everyone square in the jaw with how much this film impacted me. The Proposition is a beautiful looking film, with one of the best scores I have ever heard. It isn’t just well acted, it features a cast who fall into their roles wholesale. The Proposition is a Western unlike any other I have ever seen. It is savage and brutal, yet beautiful and moving. There’s no one to root for, yet I was engaged throughout. There’s no hope to be found in The Proposition, only death and the swift hand of retribution. Yet, when the die must be cast, The Proposition may wind up as the greatest Western I have ever seen. That’s high praise for sure, but John Hillcoat has crafted a master work. The Proposition speaks to me in the way that very few films do, that’s why as weird as it may sound I cherish every moment I spend in its frigid embrace.
Read what Edgar had to say about The Proposition over at Between The Seats.