What’s Nick Cave got to do with Cormac McCarthy? Erik Jaccard explains this seeming incompatibility in his re-view of John Hillcoat’s Aussie western The Proposition.

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The Proposition

Dir. John Hillcoat/Original Screenplay by Nick Cave
I want to start this review of John Hillcoat’s The Proposition—a film about outlaws in the Australian outback—by talking about my first rock concert, Lollapalooza 1994. This will seem odd, I’m sure, but you will shortly understand my reasons. In the summer of ’94 I spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the upcoming festival with the type of enthusiasm only the young and music-obsessed can muster. I harangued my parents about it, explained its certain wonders in detail to my sister, and debated the finer points of the lineup with my friends. Hell, I probably sung its praises to our menagerie of household pets, because that’s how frickin’ excited I was at the mere idea of it. Like many 15 year-olds, I had at that point fixed my identity firmly to my taste in pop music, and particularly to my own preferred ‘alternative rock’ b(r)and—the Smashing Pumpkins, who happened to be headlining the show. However, because I was only 15, and thus couldn’t drive on my own, and because we lived three hours from the venue, my chances of seeing my beloved Billy Corgan croon “Today” out at a rapt audience was slim to nil. So, when my parents announced one day—surely after months of Christmas Story-esque badgering on my part—that they had purchased six tickets to Lollapalooza, I was beyond ecstatic.

I’m going to skip ahead a bit, because the point of the story is not the show itself or which bands I saw, but rather one of the bands I didn’t see: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. It’s hard to blame myself for this oversight, given that I was there to see bands I knew and loved—Smashing Pumpkins and Beastie Boys in particular—and not necessarily to discover those I didn’t. Furthermore, Cave and Co. had received scant mainstream radio airplay outside of specialty shows and the odd cameo on MTV’s 120 Minutes, so they weren’t really on my radar to begin with. I somewhat naturally approached their set with indifference and, if I recall, paid only passing attention to their intense, lyrically driven songs that, while interesting, did not ‘rock’ the way my 15-year-old ears wanted them to. It may also have had something to do with the fact that they came on around 4 pm—the hottest part of a really hot day—and I had hit heatstroke-induced lull in my enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, there I was, sitting in the baking sun on a hill overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, twiddling my thumbs, chatting with my friend, and effectively missing the band, even though it was right in front of me.

To call this a mistake is too obvious—the group was then touring in support of 1994’s sublime Let Love In and my almost willful ignorance makes my adult self cringe. Eventually, though, I would get it. Sometime in 1996 I picked up a cd copy of Songs in the Key of X, a compilation inspired by or in some way evocative of the shadowy, paranoid atmosphere of FOX’s hit show The X-Files. At the time I found the record unremarkable for many of the same reasons the middle part of Lollapalooza 1994 had been unremarkable: it featured songs by a bunch of artists I either didn’t know or didn’t care about. This time, however, something made me sit up and pay attention. About a third of the way through the record was this weird, gloomy song that seemed to be about some kind of menacing, apocalyptic cowboy stalking dark lands with a fiendish glint in his eye. At first I just loved the imagery, which recalled Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. But there was more. The song’s instrumental texture was strange but alluring, featuring ominously pealing bells, spooky ghost noises, anxious, skittering percussion, and what sounded like the organ from an old horror movie. Over all of this a dark baritone voice creaked and croaked and growled, warning of a devilish man I was pretty sure I’d never want to meet. The song was by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and it was called “Red Right Hand.” After that, well, I was hooked.

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Twelve years later, in the spring of 2006, I was slouched over my computer in a rented room in the Morningside neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland, trying to think up a title and an epigraph for an essay I’d just written on Nietzsche and Cormac McCarthy’s bloody western novel Blood Meridian. Eventually deciding on my title, I began to type it up, when suddenly the master brain behind my iTunes shuffle mechanism decided to spit out “Red Right Hand.” Listening and singing along, I suddenly realized that the song was perfect as a tone-setting device in a paper dedicated to discussing the Nietzschean dimensions of one of McCarthy’s most notorious and menacing characters, the murderous, otherworldly Judge Holden: “He’s a ghost, he’s a god,/he’s a man, he’s a guru/You’re one microscopic cog/in his catastrophic plan/Designed and directed by/his red right hand.” This lyric—and the song in general—seemed to perfectly express the intersections between metaphysical distress and bloody-minded self-affirmation I’d located in McCarthy’s Wes, and in Holden’s monstrous attempts to exert his will on the world around him. What’s more, the song sounded like a spooky soundtrack to a horror film about supernatural cowboys (again, think The Dark Tower). So I used it, and it worked, or at least I think it worked. In any case, it was a creative stab in the dark that I thought was cool. The point, however, is that Cave’s menacing, gothic lyricism, his ability to communicate a story in short, compelling snatches of poetry, and his attention to impressionistic detail and sonic tone make him a unique and compelling fit to write and score a western. So, when only a few weeks later I learned that The Proposition, an Australian western written by Nick Cave, was playing down the street, I naturally took the bait.

Now that I’m finally talking about the film itself, I feel like I should get to the point quickly, given that you’ve made it all this way with me really only talking around the subject at hand. So here you go: I loved The Proposition in 2006 and I love it still, ten years later. I think that in some ways we ought to assign it a certain ‘classic’ status, even though it will probably never achieve such heights because A) it is a smaller film, produced in and by a smaller market, B) it is about Australia and not the USA, and C) it lacks some of the big-picture bravado of the epic westerns of the Hollywood tradition. Obviously, I think these are all horrible reasons for dismissing it, and if you haven’t seen it yet, or haven’t seen it since 2006, I highly recommend you go and do so right now. You may find yourself wanting some reasons to do so, so here they are:

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The Proposition is a piece of incredibly concise, emotionally taught, and densely imagistic filmmaking.

Here, I naturally return to Cave’s script, which I think brings all the grandeur and magic of his songwriting into a cinematic context, where it is surprisingly effective. First, Cave knows how to boil things down to their essential components by focusing on key ideas, refrains, and images. He does a lot within the space of a pop song, and he makes each moment count. Whether unfolding a more coherent concept-narrative, as on 1992’s Henry’s Dream, or collections united by theme or genre, as on 1990’s The Good Son or 1996’s Murder Ballads, Cave is incredibly adept at balancing scope, setting, and scene within a single collection. Not surprisingly, the band’s albums sound like really tight collections of independent vignettes wrapped together under the banner of a unifying purpose that, while necessary, is never so obvious or overdone as, say, a concept album. The Proposition is a film that seems to move with astonishing speed, and I think part of the reason for this is that it is structured as a collection of concise, emotionally dense moments tied together by a simple plot and a few key conflicts (which I’ll get to shortly). Unlike a great deal of westerns, which are either full of action and lacking in depth or so full of depth that you forget why you’re watching, The Proposition feels like a lean, economical hybrid. Clocking in at 104 minutes, it’s hardly over in the blink of an eye, yet it never drags. And even though it’s got an immense geographical-social-historical context to deal with (the colonization of Australia), it refrains from verbose information-dumps or lengthy voice-overs meant to directly explain to the viewer what everything means. The titular proposition is offered about three minutes into the film, which means that the dramatic action is placed front and center from the beginning. We aren’t made to wait until character motivations are established or until a longer and denser backstory has unfolded. We see a bloody shootout in an outback brothel, and then a quick meeting between an Irish immigrant outlaw named Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and the region’s local law enforcement, a former British army officer named Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley offers Charlie a deal: find and kill his psychopathic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), or his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), will be hanged on Christmas Day. There is, of course, more to it than this basic plotline, but the film fills you in slowly, as a by-product of the action.

Second, Cave understands that any great song—and any great album—is an act of narrative and stylistic balance. It’s about knowing when to sing and when to play, and, furthermore, about how to optimally balance a voice, a lyric, and a musical composition so that each component is complementing one another. This symmetry in composition is everywhere apparent in The Proposition. Cave’s script is lean, leaving plenty of room for the actors to perform in ways beyond just speaking, for the director and cinematographer to work with imagery, and for the score to do more than just soundtrack a pretty western postcard. Because so much of the emotional weight of the various conflicts between characters is boiled down to brief snippets of tense interaction, we’re called on to examine them fully in their visual, lyrical, and sonic complexity. This time around I was mesmerized watching certain scenes and kept tracking back just to examine a frame in detail, to find the significance of the bodies in the frame, and to hear—to hear!—the scene unfolding, whether in silence or in the sad moan of Australian multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis’ violin. In fact, The Proposition is one of only a few films I can think of that I could likely experience in a satisfying way without recourse to the visual spectrum, and this is due to the film’s various registers. The music talks, the speech sings, the visuals sometimes roar, and at other times boil or bake or moan or whisper. There’s no way to make someone else experience it the way I experience it, and you should obviously watch it all together first. But beyond that, I do recommend giving the score a listen, in a dark room, with candles lit.

Finally, but following on from this, Cave and his band rarely falls prey to self-indulgence. Their albums most often comprise 9-10 songs and stick to a conventional pop song format and length, with only a rare outlier coming in at over 6 minutes. While there is plenty of art to the music, I also don’t get the feeling that Cave is driven to create art for art’s sake, or to belabor an artistic conceit in ways that don’t also benefit a song or album, which is, after all, intended to be listened to by someone else. This is perhaps to say that they don’t let the point of whatever it is they’re doing overshadow their purpose, which is to put a compelling lyric to song so that an audience can participate in its telling. Now, some might call bullshit on this one. What I’m calling deference to the full spectrum of storytelling might seem to another as self-indulgence simply because the film doesn’t give you everything you want or perhaps need to know in order to understand the story. Motivations, for example, are admittedly opaque at times, and I might sympathize with someone who argued that the film doesn’t give the viewer enough. All that said, I think I can provide a counter-argument here by bringing the text’s social and historical context into consideration.

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The Proposition
does more than most westerns to really get at the contradictions that drove colonialism and imperialism.

On the surface, the film’s titular proposition is the one described above, which asks Charlie Burns to eventually execute his own brother. Yet, the manner in which the proposition is made transforms it into a far suppler and wider-ranging conditional statement about the history and effects of colonialism in Australia. Staring into the camera, Winstone’s Capt. Stanley quite frankly asks Burns—and all of us—a string of questions beginning with ‘suppose.’ Much of this monologue is directed at Charlie and at explaining Stanley’s motivations for offering a deal and for pursuing Arthur. But he ends by asking, “suppose I gave you the chance to expunge the burden of the guilt beneath which you so clearly labour.” The entire exchange is taut and compellingly written. It establishes Stanley’s desperate need to, as he calls it, ‘civilize this land,’ as well as Charlie’s stubbornness to comply as an object of that desire. And yet, Stanley seems to pose the question not only to Charlie, but to everyone. Charlie is there, of course, manacled and helpless, but so is the viewer, trapped with that question hanging in the air.The Proposition does about as much as it can to avoid romanticizing its subject matter, its setting, or the great mythological conquest of the Australian frontier, which shares a number of important parallels with similar conflicts with aboriginal populations in the United States. There is no heroism here, and no unproblematic white adventurism which treats the land and its peoples as inherently hostile, and thus in need of civilized taming. Each character shown spouting legitimizations of the European civilizing mission is ultimately interrogated in some way or another. Oftentimes this is accomplished by a simple visual juxtaposition between order and violence, and especially when it becomes clear that civilizing order cannot operate without brutal, horrific violence.Stanley’s question—indeed, the intent behind Stanley’s proposition—is blunt and direct and also incredibly ironic. He wishes to eradicate a violent criminal and therefore to ‘civilize this land.’ There is sense in this, as Arthur is clearly psychotic, driven to commit horrific acts even he can’t explain. But to reduce the proposition to one man’s psychosis is to miss the much larger context in which violence and horror operate in the film. As we see throughout the film, violence is everywhere, and for those who haven’t yet watched it, you should be warned that The Proposition is at times incredibly graphic. Arthur, while certainly a problem, however, is not the point. Stanley’s quest to take Arthur down assumes that in doing so he will bring goodness and light and civility to a dark and seemingly hellish land. Yet throughout we see that the supposed forces of goodness, light, and civility are the very some ones who bring with them darkness, terror, and barbarism. Midway through the film, we see a party of cavalry ride off to deal with a group of ‘rebel blacks’ who have been sighted off in the bush. We then cut to a clearing full of butchered bodies and then, appropriately, to the group of cavalrymen solemnly singing the anthem of British white superiority, ‘Rule Britannia.’ Similarly, the local effete businessman (an utterly wormy David Wenham) can only demonstrate justice and the rule of law by savagely whipping Mikey Burns—a simpleton who doesn’t seem to know where he is half the time. Even the townspeople, who had before cried for blood, turn away in disgust. Nearly every time we see the light of colonialism’s supposed beneficence, we are treated to images of horror and emptiness. While the connections are contextual only, there is then a certain Conradian logic to the film, which makes clear that the sanctity of the civilizing mission is built on the very savagery it seeks to eradicate.

Ugh, I’ve hit my deadline—literally, as I have a plane to catch. I have more to say, but sadly I’ll have to leave it here. I could probably come up with another half-dozen reasons to watch this film and I have no reservations in recommending it. It is easily the best of Hillcoat’s career and features a variety of fine acting turns (Danny Huston, who I normally don’t respond to, is great, as is Pearce for the majority of the film). But really, if I have to reach back to the beginning, and to that first big point, I’d say to watch and experience it as the song it is, a paean to a bloody history, a vague and uncertain absolution to a gruesome historical crime, and, at the end of the day, an engrossing, impressive film.

Free Floating Thoughts

– Is it possible to have an Australian move without David Wenham? I mean, I ain’t got nothin’ but love for ya, Faramir. But you are in everything.

– It’s worth commending the filmmakers for paying respectful due to the aboriginal culture which plays such a central role in the otherwise pasty white outlaw drama the film unfolds. Not only did they spend quite a bit of time collaborating with the aboriginal communities among which the film was shot, but they also took the time to cast two excellent, well-known Aboriginal actors—David Gulpillil and Tom E. Lewis—in parts which are more than ‘colored’ backdrop.

– Prior to watching the DVD extras for the film, I’d never seen an interview with Ray Winstone, though I’ve probably seen him in half a dozen films over the years. Most amusing to me, I guess, is that he actually sounds more or less like the retired gangster character he plays in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast. I should note in passing that I do not find Cockney speakers ungraceful in any way, but rather that there is a fun disjunction in seeing that particular dialect operating far afield of the East London environs with which it is most commonly associated.

– Another fun fact from the DVD extras is that it sounds like everyone wanted to play the role of the English bounty hunter, Jelon Lamb, whose memorable lines eventually—and rightfully—ended up in the hands of the gleefully disheveled and snarling John Hurt.

– As in almost every film in which she appears, Emily Watson does far more with less here in her role as Winstone’s English Rose of a wife, Martha Stanley. As a figure of public repute, she is mostly called on to look shocked, terrified, or about to pass out (which she actually does at one point), but it’s in the film’s tender moments of intimacy between Martha and her husband that she’s allowed to do some of the subtler and more interesting acting for which she’s better known.

– Early in the film Winstone’s Capt. Stanley looks out into the scorching midday sun and mutters ‘What fresh hell is this?’ The line is perfect for the film and its themes, as I explain above, but it’s also an amusing anachronism. At first, convinced it must be from a famous piece of literature, I did some poking around, expecting to find out it was from a nineteenth century poem or novel. Nope. Apparently it’s a phrase with a lot of vernacular history that was immortalized by the writer Dorothy Parker, who apparently uttered it when faced with new guests at her door.

– I don’t know why I’ve never made the connection before, but listening to Danny Huston interviewed during the ‘making of’ featurette, it dawned on me that he’s one of those Hustons (John’s son, Walter’s grandson, half-brother to Anjelica). I guess I was fooled by the fact that I’ve mostly seen him play English men in the movies, and thus I naturally concluded that he was English. Which he kind of is (on his mother’s side). Anyway, cool trivia fact!

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