THE PROPOSITION directed by John Hillcoat

It figures Nick Cave would script a movie Western. The man's got a history of plundering from the past for inspiration. But he's at least discriminating if not respectful. Indeed as grave robbers go Cave is highly methodical and deliberate. Earlier works made overt reference to things like: hillbilly music, Southern Gothic fiction, the Bible. With these, the Western shares the distinction of making Cave appear quaint, dark, primitive, Other. Which for him would seem to be the whole point. Certainly anyone who's tried reading And the Ass Saw the Angel and not been taken in by the campy Flannery hokum can appreciate how totally unencumbered Cave seems by the usual artistic hang-ups: clarity of expression, sincerity, etc. Granted every artist is more or less self-conscious about cultivating an identifiable and unique voice or style. Though I'm not sure this makes it okay for a novel to pretend an interest in weighty stuff (God, morality) when really it's just a vehicle for its author to indulge his fondness for “brain-hemorrhaging vocabulary,” i.e. florid retardese. Not the most honorable of M.O.'s, you know?

That said, some of Cave's music (pre-AOR days especially) is awful good. Ditto the score he's contributed to The Proposition: a lovely, airy drone affair that's much beholden to John Cale. Said music is also partly responsible for making the film—set in the Australian outback in the 1880s—feel at times more substantial than it rightfully ought to. It's an overcommitted film, in that is tries, with somewhat limited success, to do and say many things at once. Briefly: brothers Charlie and Mikey Burns are arrested on rape and murder charges following a bloody shootout with police. While they're no angels, the real dangerous one is their eldest brother Arthur, a certifiable nutbag who's still at large. The new police captain, wanting desperately to bring to the region a sense of order—motivated in large part by his desire to make things safe for his delicate wife Martha—tells Charlie that unless he finds and kills Arthur, their younger brother Mikey will hang.

It's an unremittingly visceral film, impressive in its ability to make contact with our moral instincts through physical sensation: that's good, considering its preoccupation with questions of justice and revenge. One scene that stands out is the flogging of Mikey, for which all the townspeople have come out in their eagerness to see him get his comeuppances. During the first few lashes they're truly into it, deriving sickly satisfaction out of the poor kid's hysterical shrieks. But the sight and sound of blood-heavy whip bearing down on his frail and battered body becomes too much, and their enjoyment gives way to a kind of fatigued horror. Their transformation certainly makes a strong point, though it's all a bit calculated and stagy, not to mention our sense of sharing with these people some kind of common humanity is undercut by our own identification with Mikey: from the start we've seen him treated like a dog, know he's not quite all there. So our reaction to these people finally coming around can only be tainted with our sense of knowing better, of our own superiority, and that's problematic.

At the same time, the film puts across the idea that certain kinds of violence are justified, that there's only one way to deal with the Arthur Burns's of the world. That's apparently what Charley wrestles with as he prepares to confront his brother (who wasn't as charismatic as the movie called for). I say apparently because we're not privy to Charley's thoughts, seeing him instead in various tableaux shots, lost in what appears to be deep contemplation. Though meant to impart a sense of awe, much like another outback film, The Walkabout, these shots feel cheap and artificial, mostly because they seem like filler meant to pad out a traditional narrative film with beauty and abstraction.

Oh whatever, let's end this thing already. Basically if your idea of a good Western is Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, this might do it for you.

-Flinty

AMAZON

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