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Zettel Film Reviews » The Proposition – the Cave-man cometh and the Cave-man taketh away

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The Proposition – the Cave-man cometh and the Cave-man taketh away

hair today - gorn tomorrow

hair today - gorn tomorrow

The Proposition – John Hillcoat

A new genre – the reductionist film. Everything reduced to the essential. Intelligence, coherence, credible artistic purpose – out. Who needs ‘em? Real characters with credible motivation in purposeful action that engages? Forget it. Superfluous. Distil to the essential. Consistency in tone and authoritative direction? Too cliched. Obvious. Let’s stay elliptical. If we don’t say anything meaningful the audience will in desperation fill in the blanks themselves.

This movie eschews all these outmoded conformist concepts and retreats to screenplay-writer Nick Cave’s legendary incisive shamanic vision. Which appears to be approximately – ‘violence, like shit, happens.’ Three brothers: Black hat Arthur Burns – card-carrying psychopath, kills people for fun but doesn’t seem to enjoy it. We know he’s deep because he is given to random quotes from George Borrow, fellow manic depressive, but not widely known for his beheading skills. White, well pretty dark grey hat, Charlie Burns who though he sounds like a stand-up comic is in fact the Ronnie Barker of the Burns hierachy – “I Look up to him – though he scares the shit out of me: and I look down on him – because he’s a bit slow and giggles a lot.” And Mikey no hat – who shall not be called Mickey on pain of a gory retribution.

In lawless violent, extraordinarily hirsute 19th century Australia, Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley, a kind of portly Harry Callaghan trying to shoot people to justice, captures Charlie and Mikey. Stanley promptly smashes Mikey in the face with his pearl-handled pistol as an opening gambit in a negotiation to get Charlie to go and kill the Walkabout Warrior Arthur on Stanley’s behalf. What today we call outsourcing. This is The Proposition – with a double pardon pay-off. This isn’t as hard as it sounds – Chas just has to find a breathtaking, photogenic Australian sunset and Arthur will be there, motionless, detached and staring shamanistically into the lurid Aussie distance. Not even a moving target for Chr**sake. If Charlie can’t quite see him, no sweat, he just listens until he hears some random, portentous fatalistic muttering drifting downwind on the evening breeze. And no pansy Western rules – no quick on the draw; just fast and silent on the sneak-up-behind; or just plain shoot everything in sight before they know you’re not asking for a light for your extra-cool Cave-rolled cigarette. Stanley gives Charlie a ten day deadline to Caan his Abel after which Mikey no-hat gets some really bad noose. Yes the accents in this one are that much all over the place and really weird.

Stir in a stereotypical bit of pommie-bashing with town boss David Wenham sporting an accent that’s a cross between Capote and Kenneth Williams, and whose citizens stare a lot, shave not at all, and seem to have collectively lost the power of speech. Then add Emily Watson as Stanley’s wife who acts as if she’s just wandered off a Lars Von Trier set, is still understandably bemused, and mysteriously drops into an unrecognisable dialect to announce that Christmas lunch is “just a little sumpin oi knorcked up.” It appears that this is the only form of knorcking up she is likely to suffer as Capt Stan is apparently not firing live ammunition in just one area of his life.

Wanky Wenham reneges on Capt Stan’s deal by having Mikey given a thousand lashes, or was it a hundred? I, just like the film, forgot after about 35. A scene for which Cave, inspired by Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, had to meet the ultimate aesthetic challenge – to “do it a different way.” Now that takes genius – there are so many different ways to flog a man to death. Somewhere in the middle of this farrago of toneless, tasteless, tosh John Hurt turns in a deliciously OTT bravura, bible-quotin’ poetry-shootin’, penknife-wieldin’ (I kid you not) bounty hunter. One critic called Hurt’s performance ‘incandescent’. He neglected to add “at the dire dialogue”. Danny Huston kills people and broods over sunsets like a poetic King Kong but hairier, asking Charlie why he doesn’t tell him to stop.

There are a couple of token live Aboriginals both working with the whites and a bunch of dead ones massacred in an act of revenge. It is this dimension that turns this unpleasant little movie into something objectionable, indeed obscene. There is no coherent attention paid within the film to all the stuff Cave has referred to in interviews about the racist history of Australia and the treatment of its indigenous peoples. A couple of bit parts and a few lines. Yet Director Holt uses real pictures of real aboriginal people standing chained and naked in his film. Where? During the end credits God help us! This is simply shameful and hateful. It is exploiting a people’s history and suffering for a trivial aesthetic effect.

There is a brief warning at the beginning of this crass, meretricious junk that “there are images in this film that aboriginal people may find disturbing (offensive?) and pictures of real dead people.” This should have read “anyone of any race will find this film empty, pointless and objectionable.” And no, I don’t have a problem accepting that Australia at this time was cruel, bleak and violent. But art is supposed to do something with such facts not just relish recreating them for stomach-churning effect to satisfy the ego of a singer songwriter. I am bewildered by the critical praise heaped on this at best self-indulgent dog of a movie. But then I must confess that Mr Cave’s musical, and lyrical genius does rather pass me by as well.

(March 2006)

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