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May 8, 2006

A simple Proposition


The Western is a genre rooted entirely in the blood-soaked soil of expansionism. When Frederick Turner wrote his Frontier Thesis in 1893, he stated that America was defined by the violence which marked its development towards the Pacific; the European refinements that held fast on the East Coast of the country grew dissolute as the settlers expanded Westward, and the social hierarchy of the Crown was replaced by an anti-authoritive sentiment - "that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and evil," as he put it - which was intrinsically bound to the savagery of the frontier.

This history is shared to no small extent by Australia, whose Commonwealth was developing under imperious European sovereignty around the same period that Turner wrote his thesis. This similarly receding frontier, circa 1880, marked like America with the grim domination of an indigenous people, is the setting for John Hillcoat's The Proposition, a film which takes the roots of the genre and viciously tugs them from their earthen bed. If Jarmusch's Dead Man could be described as a post-Western, then The Proposition is a pre-Western, made of the primal stuff which early John Wayne and the Lone Ranger turned generic, which The Searchers boldly managed to hint at, which Peckinpah stripped bare as best as he was able to within the studio system, and which in recent years has been refracted through postmodern revisionism (A History Of Violence would be a good example of this).

When Matt Clayfield reviewed the film upon its release in Australia last fall, he wrote that it "often feels like Hillcoat has added a lot of the more detailed historical stuff (such as the archival material that appears in the film's opening and end credits), the vast majority of which concerns itself with the oppression of indigenous Australians by white settlers, to a story by Nick Cave that, like much of his music, is ultimately more concerned with big, timeless, universal themes."

Indeed, in the press notes for the film, Cave is quoted as saying that "the fact that it was a western set in Australia was very much secondary. I was primarily interested in the interplay between characters in the most general sense." He makes no attempt to expound upon or revise the mythical building blocks he's used to construct it; when a writer as steeped in Southern literature and Old Testament values as Cave is sits down to write a story about three brothers in a lawless land, there is only one direction that can be taken. The script is simple as hell, but its simplicity is of the primal sort demanded by a context such as this, of the sort Turner saw in early America, in which the delineation between the primeval and the civilized loops back on itself. It is a simplicity which Hillcoat takes full advantage of, which he parses and creates space enough to lyrically envelope the history of the land. Little details like the aboriginal servant set free, leaving his shoes at the threshold of a homestead before disappearing into the outback, become as memorable as the scene in which Emily Watson stares at her hand while recounting a haunting dream of a departed friend.

The latter scene is one of several subtle instances in which, as Matt points out, Hillcoat skews our expectations; he lingers on Watson's naked back as she relates a story, having chosen an awkward angle that suddenly gains significance as she lifts her hand from the bathwater that previously hid it. An unremarkable image suddenly becomes heartbreaking, just as others become menacing or frightening or sickening (its impossible to become accustomed to the the way violence explodes - literally - throughout the film). Cave, for his part, makes one striking departure from the archetypal form of his narrative: one would expect Ray Winstone's Captain Stanley, the man who makes the titular proposition, to be a villainous symbol of futile bureaucracy, like Kenneth Brannagh's government official in Rabbit Proof Fence; instead, he becomes an unexpected protagonist, occupying not the center but his own half of the moral scales that shift constantly as the outlaw Charlie Burns, played by Guy Pearce, shifts his loyalty back and forth between his evil brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and his own conscience.

I wrote last week, after listening to the score by Cave and Warren Ellis, that the penultimate track on the record could only belong at the end of the film. Indeed, it does come on, assuaging an appropriately abrupt conclusion with a wistful sense of passage. Lyrically, it reflects the narrative (and provides closure to Cave's incantatory presence on the rest of the soundtrack) in its most mythic sense; but coming on as it does over an image of the land beset by a descending blood-red sun, I think that it tonally serves the historical context as well. There is nothing triumphant about the blood spilt in the development of a nation, and any argument over its necessity can rage on, so long as an acknowledgment occurs. Narratively, The Proposition offers little that is new; but contextually, it is as definitive a Western as one might wish for.

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Readers of this journal know that I'm a bit of an emphatic - if critical - devotee of Cave; and yet, I've never read his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel. I've heard it described as a fourth-rate Faulkner and second-rate O'Connor; I suppose I should finally go ahead and give it a shot, now that it's back in print. Is anyone else familiar with it?

Posted by David Lowery at May 8, 2006 4:25 PM


Thanks for the fine review - it echoes a lot of the thoughts I had after seeing the film in Berlin. Still haven't bought the soundtrack, eventhough I thought I would. Don't know why, but the film didn't stick in me for very long either. I liked it a lot - but I have no further attraction to it any more (and I thought I would've wanted to see it again). Some time I will see it again without sound for the sake of studying the cinematography - I wonder David, have you got any thoughts on that part of "The Proposition"? For me, the images was this film's most striking quality.

Posted by: Karsten at May 9, 2006 6:34 AM

wonderful review, as always david. i'm going to try to catch this over the weekend.. looking very forward to it.

Posted by: brad at May 9, 2006 8:49 AM


I read the novel, which I picked up when Cave was with Lalapolozza in the ninties (autographed by the troubledour!-when I asked him about the Birthday Party he shrugged and said "It's over, man.") It's very dense, often times surreal, Biblical tale along the lines of Cain and Abel. He strains far too hard in descriptions of very rural, very hellish outback life and rarely achieves the poetry his music often did, does.
Give me an address and I will send you the copy. I have enjoyed your writing so why the heck not?


Posted by: Jerry at May 9, 2006 5:46 PM

Karsten - it could very well vanish from from my mind as well, but I'm hoping it doesn't. You're right about the cinematography - it's gorgeous. I remember greatly admiring Benoit Delhomme's work with Mike Figgis in the late '90s, but this is the first time I've really noticed his work since, and it's outstanding.

Brad - if you somehow miss it in the next few weekends, maybe we can catch it while I'm in town.

Jerry - wow, talk about generosity! Thanks for the offer and the kind words. Your take on the book sounds a lot like what one of my friends told me about it (he eventually founud it too tedious to finish), but I'd still like to give it a shot. I know David Gordon Green likes it - he mentions it the commentary track on George Washington, I believe.

About Cave and Lollopalooza; apparently, when the tour came through Dallas, he was heckled and booed by an audience who wanted to see the headliner (NIN, I think?) and afterwards swore never to return to North Texas again. And thus it was that I travelled to New Orleans to see him and Warren Ellis play back in 2001 -- still probably the best show I've ever been to.

Posted by: Ghostboy at May 9, 2006 11:32 PM