John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, from a screenplay by Nick Cave, plays out as a mournful frontier ballad with many of the traits of postmodern American westerns. But the story unfolds against the barren backdrop of the 1880’s Australian outback, without the scenic wonders of the American West. From this mostly flattened-out perspective, it is virtually impossible to develop any kind of epic kinetic flow in this fable of primitive frontier justice, quests for revenge, and fraternal loyalties and disloyalties among brothers engaged in brutal crimes. Most of the film, however, is more philosophically meditative than dramatically gripping, bringing it closer to absurdist theater than its original pulp origins.
The Proposition is the product of an improvised collaboration between Mr. Hillcoat, the director, who grew up in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, and Mr. Cave, the screenwriter, originally a singer-composer who burst on the London pop scene from Melbourne with an explosive band, the Birthday Party.
Mr. Hillcoat had already directed two films, Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, which Mr. Cave also worked on, and To Have and to Hold, a 1996 film set in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, with Tchéky Karyo and Rachel Griffiths. As the story goes, Mr. Hillcoat was taking so long to finish the screenplay for The Proposition that Mr. Cave jumped in with the suggestion that he write it. Mr. Cave had originally been hired to supply the film’s music, some of which is now sung by Mr. Cave and some by Martha Murphy Badger.
We first meet the Burns brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce), Arthur (Danny Huston) and Mike (Richard Wilson), and their gang of renegades as they murder, rape and pillage a settlers’ colony. When the local lawmen, led by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), capture Charlie and Mike after another bloody encounter, Captain Stanley offers a strange and secret “proposition” to Charlie: If he will go out and kill his own brother, Arthur, supposedly the most evil of the gang, Captain Stanley will spare the youngest brother, Mikey, from the hangman’s noose. Since Mikey is slightly retarded and the most vulnerable of the three, Charlie accepts the proposition after a brief hesitation.
Captain Stanley emerges with Charlie as the co-protagonist, and part of the absurdist dialectics of the narrative. The captain has emigrated from England to Australia with his well-born wife, Martha (Emily Watson), and is desperately trying to bring old-fashioned law and order to an area overrun by Irish rebels fiercely opposed to any English ideas about “order.” The Burns brothers are thus typical examples of the ethnic problems confronting Captain Stanley. Many of the domestic scenes are tinged with the pathos of his desperate attempts to convey to a fearful Martha the hope and wish that they can be happy together in the more challenging conditions of the outback.
Captain Stanley’s multiple tasks aren’t made any easier by the vengeful villagers, the unruly men under his command and his own superior, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham). Fletcher is outraged over the release of Charlie Burns, who he believes is as evil as Arthur.
As Charlie sets out to locate his brother, he is not accompanied by an inner monologue that would tell us what he intends to do. The apparent choice he faces between Mikey’s life and Arthur’s represents a wager of Biblical proportions. But even before he reaches Arthur, he is confronted by an eccentric English prospector named Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), who, when he isn’t spouting poetry or trivia about the strange ideas of Charles Darwin, casts aspersions on the Irish people. When Charlie warns him to stop insulting his countrymen, Lamb pulls out a knife, and Charlie knocks him out with a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. But that won’t be the last we see of Lamb.
Back in what Captain Stanley is trying to turn into civilization, Fletcher inflames the settlers to exact their own revenge on Mikey, the only Burns brother remaining in custody. The captain is startled when his wife Martha joins the settlers and even gives them the key to Mikey’s cell. Mikey is dragged out to a post, his back is bared, and 40 bloody lashes are inflicted. The flogging in all its gory detail proves too much for the now-guilt-ridden Martha to bear. Far from blaming her for helping Fletcher, Stanley is even more consumed by guilt for having brought his wife to this hellhole in the first place. Like Charlie, Captain Stanley now finds himself in a no-win situation.
From time to time, the local aborigines are shown in the early stages of their mass extermination by the white colonists—a fearsome parallel with what happened to Native Americans. The vengeful Lamb reappears in Charlie’s path, this time with a hired gang of aborigines, who bind Charlie to prepare him for torture. Irony of ironies, Charlie is then rescued by Arthur, who dispatches Lamb with a knife to the chest. When word reaches them that Mikey has died from the scourging inflicted upon him, Arthur and Charlie and the rest of the surviving gang members set out for their final reckoning with the forces arrayed against them. Both Charlie and Captain Stanley now find themselves confronting the horrors of a new land with no laws or boundaries of behavior.
Mr. Huston, Mr. Pearce and Mr. Winstone give especially luminous performances as Arthur, Charlie and Captain Stanley. Their faces serve as signposts of the moral struggles waged both within and without, against the implacable fury of an unforgiving landscape. The Proposition ends up as the antithesis of the traditional horse opera: There is nowhere for horses to go in the outback without running into more nowhere. We seem to be on a bare stage instead, listening to Samuel Beckett characters bemoaning their fate. I happen to admire all this doom and gloom; it seems so timely.
Up to You, Mate
Cate Shortland’s Somersault, from her own screenplay, has been kicking around the States for nearly two years after winning 13 Australian Film Institute awards, including for Best Film, Best Actress and Best Director. It was an official selection in 2004 of the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, as well as the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Series. But as I recall, I was less than enchanted by Abbie Cornish as the film’s protagonist, a 16-year-old girl named Heidi, who runs away from her dysfunctional household after she is caught trying to seduce her mother’s boyfriend. Heidi takes off on a bus to a quiet ski resort somewhere in the vastness of Australia. There she experiences a sexual awakening, a burgeoning low and a measure of emotional stability after many foolishly naïve missteps.
I’m not sure if it was the actress or the character or the general situation, but since I am usually a pushover for Australian newcomers of the nymphet and post-nymphet variety, my resistance to Ms. Cornish seemed like a very considered judgment. Yet everything I have read about the film since then has been strongly at odds with my negative reaction. Could I have been wrong? Was Heidi one nymphet too many for me back then? I recalled Sam Worthington as Joe, the spoiled rich boy with whom Heidi finds some of what she is searching for, as being not bad, and Lynette Curran, as Heidi’s friend and landlady, as being quite good—but the rest was a dim memory of an adolescent girl out of control in a somber sort of way.
As is so often the case, I had to see the film again to determine whether I had been right the first time, and whether everyone else has been wrong since then. After all, I did miss the boat on Debra Winger the first time around—how could I have overlooked the mesmerizing spell of her fantastic eyes? So many things go into any individual reviewer’s particular reactions to a film, especially when we poor wretches are overworked inspecting too much footage from the five continents.
A funny thing: When I looked at Somersault for the second (and positively the last) time, I could see exactly why I didn’t like it in the first place—but I could also see why other reviewers were more favorably inclined. If one didn’t much care one way or another about the improbabilities of the narrative and the sociology, one could concentrate on the relentless lyricism of the camera work and its fixation on bright colors, particularly a pair of red gloves that Heidi purchases at the resort and virtually animates with her probing fingers in a frenzy of fetishism. These directorial exercises are meant to remind us how much of the world she has yet to explore. In the end, Heidi is reunited with her mother, with Joe left dangling indecisively, his home life a dead end of inarticulateness. My impression remained this time around of an unfinished screenplay in which too many intervals of small talk masqueraded as the forerunners of emotional events that never materialized.
So my advice on this occasion is: Don’t take my word for it. See the movie and make up your own mind about the future prospects of writer-director Cate Shortland.