Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 28, 2006 7:51 am 
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A very violent Christmas

The Proposition tells us with its opening credits of late nineteenth century photographs what it's about: a family's been massacred by outlaws in the Australian outback. Later we learn the raped mother was pregnant. The opening scene is a violent shootout like L.A. Confidential's finale: the interior of a cabin lit only by bullet holes in the walls where defenders shoot and scramble and die resisting police attackers. This was the Burns gang, and it was they who perpetrated the "Hopkins Outrage" shown in the opening stills. Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) and Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) wind up in a jail presided over by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). But these are the good guys. The really evil brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), mastermind and chief perpetrator of the violence, is still at large, and Stanley makes Charlie a proposition: he will keep the weak, whimpering young Mikey as hostage and let Charlie out and grant him and Mikey both full amnesty if Charlie will find and kill his brother Arthur by Christmas.

This is a movie that plays with ambiguities: who is honest and good, the Law, or the lawless? In the midst of it is the weak, well-meaning man played by Winstone (who looks slimmer and healthier than usual, but still carries with him an acting legacy of slime-bags and gleeful cockney villains). Arthur spouts poetry and admires sunsets and murmurs constantly of love and family, but he's unquestionably a sadistic killer who goes wild when he sees blood. He himself wonders why Charlie has never stopped him. Why hasn't he? And what should Charlie do? Is fratricide an appropriate gesture to usher in the Christmas season? Pearce's steely leanness serves to give him a certain aura of knighthood beneath the outlaw grime and he recovers from a spear wound, like Tristan. The most obvious bad man is a local English territorial governor, a nasty racist type, set off as impossible to like by a bad complexion and an upper-class accent, who wants aborigines killed in bunches to frighten them off reprisals and orders that Mikey be given a flogging that is very likely to kill him. An unnecessary wild card, a bit of color who's a bit too colorful, is Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), whose florid opening drunk scene shows too little directorial control. In uneasy relationship with the morally murky, racist-minded whites are the hapless indigenous locals.

Where The Proposition excels is in the way it infuses interiors, street scenes, and the weathered faces and clothing of its actors with period authenticity. Emily Watson, pale skinned and perfectly groomed as Morris Stanley's wife Martha, presides with some dignity over a microcosm of the colonial world, magically producing a turkey, even a Christmas tree with decorations and fake snow in time for Jesus' birthday, when the events come to a close. Watson is beautiful and noble and real in a thankless role: the writing isn't quite good enough to develop her character well. "I'm a resourceful woman," she says, and we believe her, but she remains too static.

The Proposition is disturbing, yet shallow. The cast is good, the filmmakers are able in the look they achieve, and Cave's music is powerful if you accept rock as a background to nineteenth-century scenes, but the screenplay is scrappy and not entirely coherent. An opening warning says indigenous peoples may be offended by some of the treatment shown in the film. I should have said human beings might be offended. You see an aborigine's head blown apart (a remarkable shot), and you hear blacks spoken of with condescension, but you also see white men humiliated, shot, beaten, stabbed with spears, and torn to pieces. Hillcrest and Cave's creation may evoke the westerns of Pekinpah or Eastwood but also films of Australian massacres. Its period look resonates with that of Jarmusch's Dead Man. Yet it has its own distinctive desolation, one which will alienate many while making some ardent converts.

(Released in Australia in 2005 and much celebrated there; limited US release May 2006.)

┬ęChris Knipp 2006

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