Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is an outlaw given the film’s titular proposition; Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) releases him while holding his baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) prisoner. The deal? Charlie must kill the leader of the Burns’ gang, brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or else Mikey will hang on Christmas Day. The setting is the Outback of Queensland, 1880s, but it could be America around the time of the confederates. The screenplay comes from Nick Cave, who, along with Bad Seed (and Dirty Three member) Warren Ellis also supplies the music.
Many of the themes from Cave’s plays and lyrics are given a fresh dust-off: religion, the warped morality of an imposing law, the conscious role of an anti-hero. Remember, Cave once sang a 16-minute song (‘O’Malley’s Bar’, from The Murder Ballads) encouraging his audience to side with a remorseless killer who, once caught, can only offer “if I have no free will than how can I be morally culpable?” So to have a screenplay where the audience must choose between a criminal, wanted for rape, murder, looting and general barbaric deeds and the long-arm of the law who is heat-jaded, out of his depth and wanting to create his own version of vigilantism-justice in order to provide a balance between the gentile society he supposedly represents (his wife Martha, played with trademark poise despite vulnerability by Emily Watson) and the land-owner who is boss (a nasty David Wenham as Eden Fletcher) is no great surprise. Indeed, there are no heroes in this film, only villains.
Skewed morality has been Cave’s most constant theme. In his own cinema exploits (Ghosts Of The Civil Dead) in his religious plays (King Ink Volume 1) and most famously in his Murder Ballads album. But The Proposition is more than just a cinematic exercise in drawing tension and sustained mood from the main plotline. There’s Cave and Ellis’ evocative music, eerily reminiscent at times of Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn’s score for Ravenous (also featuring Guy Pearce, coincidentally). There’s John Hurt’s superb cameo as a drunken bounty-hunter, a thorn amongst other thorns, in this bleak landscape that features outlaw white Australians and rogue Aboriginal trackers. (Also coincidentally Hurt appeared in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which can be compared to The Proposition for its post-modern take on the traditional western tale and its scratch-and-itch score supplied by Neil Young).
Director John Hillcoat’s vision of The Proposition is glorious, the Queensland locations come up beautifully on film, the sky is – in a sense – a character within this tale; so beautiful is it, shot naturally and in time-lapsed sequences.
Nick Cave loves to quote from early blues and rock’n’roll in his songs, Leadbelly and Dylan, Elvis and Johnny Cash have all supplied lyrics and tone for Cave to embellish. So for him to have his film characters speaking in the dulcet dramatics of Shakespeare (“what fresh hell is this?” Winstone intones looking out from a prison window at a barren stab of land) is again no surprise. It’s not audacious, nor incongruous – Cave’s passion and understanding of his antecedents allows him to do this with only a mild touch of wry, dark humour. His soundscapes for the film evoke the bluesy field hollers that suggest this tale could have been recast to encompass the slavery in America, pre-Civil Rights.
But most powerfully, Cave’s voice does the one thing that decent screenplay writing must be capable of; he allows space for the actors to make their mark, and for the director to translate the lines in to actual images. This is The Proposition’s principal strength within its enigmatic glory; it is a powerful example of the perfect sum being gathered from strong individual parts.
I don’t love a lot of westerns – but I can always turn to The Proposition. In fact, any time I want to head to the genre to find something good (I say I don’t love a lot of westerns – but man, some of my favourite films are westerns: Unforgiven, High Plains Drifter, the comedy spaghetti-westerns of Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, even westerns repurposed to other galaxies – like Star Wars…) The Proposition is the film that points me in the direction of the western genre. It’s only new – in a relative sense – but it’s become an easy touchstone for me.
Also, I fall in and out of love with Nick Cave – with his oeuvre. And this is the one work of his that feels like the cleverest – he’s gone on to make better movie soundtracks but this was the start of some very fine work from him and Ellis. He’s made one of his best albums just the other year and certainly, since The Proposition, there has been a lot of good Nick Cave music – nothing to do with the writing of this film; not necessarily anyway. But where he appeared to be trying far too hard with his first novel, and then not nearly hard enough with the second the writing of The Proposition is taut, close to perfect. That’s the main thing I get from it – the way it works as a screenplay. The performances are stunning, the feel of the film is so right, spot on. Such tension, a real sweat and grit builds up. So raw. But much as Hillcoat and the actors nail it, much as the music is perfect, I come back to it as a script. To me that’s why this all works. That’s not always the case with a movie. But this is a shining example of that for me; of the screenplay doing the work, setting it all up.
Click here to listen to the film’s soundtrack