I figured I'd get the ball rolling on this thing with a few of my all-time favorites. First up is the 2005 film The Proposition...
Writer: Nick Cave
Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
I've always had a soft spot for Westerns. I loved True Grit as a kid. When John Wayne rides in to the climactic fight with "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch," I still get pumped. The problem with John Wayne movies, though, is that they star John Wayne. Let me explain that a little: In a John Wayne movie, it's clear from the outset who the hero is. (spoiler alert: it's John Wayne) He may be grizzled and grumpy, a crude, gruff loner, and maybe he's even missing an eye, but he's always got the white hat (or occasionally the green beret) on. He's going after the bad guy or a gang of outlaws, he's got some sort of sidekick in tow for comedic relief, and you know there's going to be a shootout in the last 10 minutes. And you can guess pretty well who's going to win. (super special spoiler alert: It's John Wayne again)
To be fair, though, most Westerns are like that. Even Clint Eastwood and his Man With No Name. They've all got some variation on the requisite conventions, and they almost always end up in the same place, regardless of how they get there. But they're fun popcorn films with larger than life characters that put us in a harsh, uncivilized landscape that we, as civilized human beings, can marvel at, knowing we come out all right on the other side.
Enter The Proposition. Though it's set in the Australian outback of the 1880's, this film the absolute embodiment of a Western. The land is wild, the characters rough and scarred, and the ideals of civilized men are fighting to catch hold. The body of this film may be gaunt, sharp-edged and sun-bleached, with the hungry eyes of a dying man, but it's definitely got a cowboy hat on.
In a harsh, unforgiving landscape, we have the Burns Gang: Charlie (Guy Pearce), Mikey (Richard Wilson) and their older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), along with other assorted misanthropes (a favorite word of mine that I now have an even greater love for, thanks to the definition given by gang member Two Bob (Tom E. Lewis): "Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger."). They've been wreaking havoc for awhile --looting, murdering, raping and pillaging, etc.-- when Charlie, perhaps with a crisis of conscience, perhaps out of fear, takes his younger brother Mikey, a simpleton, and strikes out away from Arthur.
Some time shortly after, Charlie and Mikey are apprehended after a shootout by local lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Under what loose definition of law there is in the Outback of the 1880's, they are to be hung for their crimes. But Captain Stanley's aim is clear ("I will civilize this land,"), and he's after Arthur Burns, the most brutal and unrepentant of the trio. To this end, he brokers a deal with Charlie: Find Arthur and kill him by Christmas--nine days from then--and Charlie and his younger brother can go free; or else Mikey will hang on Christmas Day.
Enough of the recap, and on with the gushing praise. I absolutely adore this movie. I've seen it some ten times and it's one of the few movies I've bothered to purchase on blu-ray even though I already had the DVD. It is brutal, painful, terrible to behold and stunningly beautiful. The performances are all top notch, though no main character is given the lion's share of the too-short run time.
I've been a Guy Pearce fan since Memento, and his performance here, though almost silent, just solidifies that fandom. Danny Huston is visceral, disgusting, and fascinating as Arthur, a violent, immoral sociopath, who recites poetry and marvels at the sunset. And if anyone thinks that Ray Winstone isn't one of the finest actors working today, goddammit, they're just plain wrong.
Rounding out the performances are the Captain's wife, Martha Stanley, a Victorian lady attempting to live as though she were back in England (right down to the imported Christmas tree) , played to low-key perfection by Emily Watson; Eden Fletcher, a governor every bit the high society English gentleman, complete with superiority complex, played by David Wenham, who most will remember as the narrator of the film 300; and Jellon Lamb, a leathery, drunken, intellectual bounty hunter, who, in the same breath curses the Irish for the world's ills and giggles at Darwin's supposition that humans are descended from apes. He is played by the incomparable John Hurt, and he very simply crushes the few scenes he's in like few other actors could.
The thing that puts The Proposition above many other films in the genre, and indeed many other films period, is in many ways its unflinching brutality. There is no good guy here. There are only varying degrees of bad. Is Captain Stanley an honorable man? Probably. Does he love his wife? Most definitely. And yet his methods would be seen by many as unthinkable. This is a land that does not want to be civilized, but he's determined, at any and all costs.
Charlie Burns loves his brother, this is clear. And Mikey is little more than a child, terrified of being on his own. We sympathize for them both. And yet, each has done unspeakably evil things. Arthur's wrath is terrible, his actions unforgivable, and yet he preaches that "Love. Love is the key. Love and family. For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love and those you love around you? What could more hollow than to die alone, unloved?"
I will not spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that this film does not end with a happily ever after. And yet, despite it's horrors, it is undeniably beautiful. The minimalistic tactics used by Hillcoat and Cave, along with the haunting score by Cave himself, serve to bring everything into stark relief, both the blood and the tenderness. In one scene, Stanley brings his grief-stricken wife a bowl of soup. The few words exchanged between them show more love than anything I've seen on screen in years.
In closing, I'll say this: Watch this movie. Watch it twice at least. It will stay with you longer than you want it to. And it should.