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Old 2nd Apr 2007, 14:35   #1
Noumenon
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Default The Proposition

Forever to be thought of as Nick Cave's The Proposition, this is the story of Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce), one of three close Irish brothers cum psychotic rapist-murderous outlaws living in the Wild Wild Far-South-East that is 1800's Australia. When Charlie and his younger brother, Mike, are captured after a bloody gun fight by Capt. Morris Stanley (Ray Yoo Bleedin' Mankeys Winstone) he is offered a chance to save Mike's life by killing his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston) - this the titular proposition. Thus Charlie is released onto his own recognisance with nine days to do his duty before Mike meets the gallows on Christmas day.

This is the last point at which the story moves with any real speed, and even now it drags somewhat getting to the point - in fact, I'm going to struggle to say much about The Proposition that is positive. I shall get the principle plus out of the way early: this is a very nice looking film. But then, it's a western - maybe the most cinematic of genres - and it takes a real talent to make one that looks bad. Desolate landscapes, sandstone sculpted by the lonesome winds, heart-wrenching sunsets - these are to be expected, nay demanded, and here director John Hillcoat and his team do not disappoint; in fact, moving to the next compulsory facet of the modern western story, the grittiness of frontier life is given additional depth and effectiveness with some excellent touches, the sight of townsfolk witnessing a brutal flogging with hoards of flies congregating undisturbed on their backs being a stand-out image. Ah yes; flogging.

This is a miserably nasty world we are sentenced to inhabit. Graphic depictions of bullet-damage, spear-skewerings, head-stompings, beheaded corpses and more make the relatively tame flogging scene something of a relief. Our protagonist we swiftly learn is at least partly responsibly for the rape and murder of a pregnant townswoman, the crime for which he and his brother's gang are hungrily wanted. Capt. Stanley's decision to apparently release one of the Burns brothers makes him almost their peer in this atrocity amongst the people he serves as a law enforcer. Numerous times in the opening minutes he mutters "I will civilise this land," and of course this is basically another re-telling of the classic western theme, Where is this mythical Civilisation to be found?

The alleged Australian fascination with the outlaw anti-hero (Ned Kelly, Chopper, Mad Max, Harold Ramsey-Street) is at the heart of this tale. Charlie is presented as taciturn and tight-lipped, as sun-baked and wind-carved as the places he travels; Arthur however talks a fine line in conveniently apt poetry and we are presumably supposed to see this as a parallel to the mere trappings of civilisation as practiced by the Stanley's with their desperate Christmas celebrations, the sadistic fop of an upper-class landowner (played to ridicule, a total cliché) and the flamboyant pretensions of John Hurt's thepisanic bounty-hunter.

So, back to the opening point: why is this Nick Cave's The Proposition? As a teller of short, often devastating stories through the medium of his music, Cave is an undoubted talent. I have never heard it said that Van Gogh had a good ear for a tune, however - just because someone demonstrates ability in one creative field doesn't make them skilled in every other one. Cave's novel And the Ass saw the Angel has (I understand, not having read it myself) received a more or less positive response, as has The Proposition, but I find myself wondering how much this relies on his fan base's desire for him to succeed.

The Proposition
is not a well-written film by any stretch of the imagination. It is laborious and at times predictable in plot, two-dimensional in characterisation and totally lacking any recognisable message as articulated by the experience of the characters, except perhaps the Civilisation theme mentioned above which has been done immeasurably better during the hundred or so years westerns have been made. Because that's what ALL westerns are already about by definition, you look for more and here don't get it. It's just all a bit grim and distant. Like the outback.

So, after discussing with the couple of friends I watched it with, my concluding statement was "If it hadn't been written by Nick Cave, it wouldn't have been made, at least not in this form - it's a first draft script." Having now looked on IMDb for the page link, my eye was caught by the first piece of trivia and so I clicked in disbelief. Here were the two out of three that are relevant to my thinking:
Originally, John Hillcoat approached Nick Cave about doing the soundtrack for a Western, eventually he asked if Cave would write the screenplay as well.

Nick Cave finished the script in three weeks.
It seems I was both right and wrong. It is a first draft, by a first-time screenwriter. Therefore, unprofessional. No-one gets it right first time and shouldn't be expected to, but no filmmaker should work from a first draft if they have any sense anyway. However, Nick Cave didn't push his own script with his existing fame: he was invited to do the duty with no evidence of aptitude. Therefore Hillcoat deserves everything he got, which wasn't much. Stagger Lee in a dustbowl basically - although in truth this is more Capt. Stanley's story than Charlie Burns'.

The end result is an undeniably striking film, but one I would flat out refuse to watch ever again. It has one brief but staggering set-piece and a few remarkably unusual individual shots, none of which I will specify, but lasting as they do for maybe a minute or two in total they hardly justify the rest. For these, along with the positives I mentioned up at the top, The Proposition just barely escapes scraping the barrel.

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Old 2nd Apr 2007, 14:49   #2
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Default Re: The Proposition

Hmm. I gave this last year - it was on my top films of '06 list. I don't much care whether it was a first draft or a twentieth draft by a new or old screenwriter; nor that it was Nick Cave (though his music fitted the film perfectly). I just found it visually and cinematically coherent and rather impressive, in all parts of the drama: between the brothers, and the whole Ray Winstone/Emily Watson set-up. It totally worked for me.
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Old 2nd Apr 2007, 15:41   #3
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Default Re: The Proposition

And here I was just about to revise downwards to one star and a half!
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Old 2nd Apr 2007, 15:52   #4
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Default Re: The Proposition

Go ahead It's just personal opinion either way, isn't it?
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Old 2nd Apr 2007, 16:26   #5
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Default Re: The Proposition

True, true. I didn't mention Emily Watson (or in fact, examine the performances generally) first time round. I thought she was good; also one of those very unusual images I mentioned is hers (in the bathtub, describing her dream) and she is the lynchpin of probably the single most dramatic scene (not the finale, which I found rather undramatic, mainly because it had become so obvious when and what was going to happen), but the rising tensions prior to the flogging.

In fact the only performances I found jarring were those of the bounty hunter and the landowner, the first as just too damn scenery-chewing, the second for being the thinnest, crappest evil-toff cliché ever - who completely evaporated from the story after hissing "you're finished in this town, Stanley," or words to that effect, without finishing anything else but that sentence. The problem is, you can have good performances of bad characters just as easily as the other way around, just as good or bad characters can populate an unconvincing world.

There's this cliché of screenwriting being a craft, not an art, but I think it is true. Scripts are more like blueprints than paintings, their purpose is to effectively describe what other people then make into something beautiful. You can make a amazing looking door, but if it doesn't open when your house catches fire you'll just run into it and break your nose. My feeling is that Nick Cave has two pieces of burning tissue paper in front of him.
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Old 5th Apr 2007, 11:04   #6
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Default Re: The Proposition

John Hillcoat and Nick Cave (and Ray Winstone, of course) have teamed up again for Death Of A Ladies Man, in which, after his wife commits suicide, a travelling salesman takes his son on the road with him. Apparently it's a comedy.

Regarding The Proposition, I wasn't exactly won over by it either. I think I gave it three stars. I can't remember anything about it now.
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Old 9th Apr 2007, 2:11   #7
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Default Re: The Proposition

Being a huge Nick Cave fan, i wanted to love The Proposition, but i found it pretty unsatisfying.
Firstly, the best acting in the film came from the flies. They practically bombarded the screen!
Secondly, Cave's female characters leave a lot to be desired. They are usually madonna/whore embodiments and Emily Watson, as fine an actress as she is, she had very little material to work with in this film.
Excellent soundtrack though!
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