One of the greatest joys of movie watching, I believe, is discovering a great work of art hitherto unknown to the person concerned – in this case, me. From the few movies that I’ve watched since turning a cinephile whole-heartedly, most of the movies that I have fallen in love with, be it a Taxi Driver, a Pulp Fiction, a Breathless or an Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest), were recognized and universally acknowledged masterpieces. Consequently, despite the numerous reasons for the supreme and overwhelming sense of joy I felt after watching them, the exhilarating feeling of discovery wasn’t one of them. That I felt when I watched Mrinal Sen’s Interview (never recognized on the same pedestal as the ones which are considered as Sen’s greatest works) or, for that matter Chungking Express and Oldboy (I hadn’t heard much of Wong Kar-Wai or for that matter nothing of Park Chan-Wook when I watched these movies). To some extent even the Indie movie Shotgun Stories gave rise to a feeling similar to this. And that is quite akin to the feeling I experienced after watching the Aussie western The Proposition.
One of the finest Westerns I’ve seen in a long time, this hard-edged and utterly riveting movie falls in the genre called revisionist or deconstructionist Westerns. Where in the legendary Westerns of John Ford the outlaw used to be essentially an honourable man with noble ambitions, and in Sergio Leone’s Man-With-No-Name Spaghetti Westerns a delightful twist in morality was brought by providing a streak of glamour and magnetism to otherwise merciless and dangerous outlaws, the deconstructionist Westerns aim to do exactly what the name signifies, by presenting the West in its true essence bereft of any romanticism. In movies falling in the latter genre, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven being perhaps one of the earliest as well as finest examples, the West is presented as a harsh and unforgiving landscape peppered with vile, disillusioned and amoral characters that are anything but sexy or heroic. These are men who are driven by their loss of identity, their sense of detached existence, their regressive idea of heroism, and their interchangeable and self-fulfilling notions of good and bad. Often compared to Sam Peckinpah’s iconic The Wild Bunch, The Proposition is arguably one of the most startlingly original and engaging movies of this genre that, in its most basic elements, aims to completely reverse the enamouring myth of the Wild, Wild West.
The chief storyline (or rather, the storyboard) of the movie is presented in the very first scene. After a deceptively haunting, beautiful and sadly nostalgic song accompanying the starting credits, the movie immediately shifts to fifth gear with a bloody gunfight scene. Soon after that we see Capt. Stanley, a British man of the law who has come to Australia in the late 19th century to tame its various forces and civilize the place – a praiseworthy intent which we somehow know is bound to experience a spectacular and miserable failure – presenting the titular proposition to the captured outlaw Charlie Burns, a supposedly wanted criminal. Stanley tells Charlie that he intends to have Chalie’s younger brother Mikey, also captured during the gunfight sequence, sent to the gallows on Christmas, which happens to be a couple of weeks away, unless Charlie finds and kills his elder brother Arthur, the man Stanley actually wants to bring down. And thus is let loose a vicious and irreversible chain of events that, any viewer would realize with a heavy and fearful heart, is bound to bring catastrophe to all the players concerned and end in complete devastation.
As a critic has so fascinatingly digressed, the movie is a brilliant study of the contrasts – the beauty as well as the brutal, and in the process has become both mesmerizing and menacing. Capt. Stanley might seem to be a cold law enforcer for asking Charlie to murder his elder brother, but we soon come to realize that he is perhaps the only ‘good guy’ of the story – a man at utter conflicts with his callous job and taking care of his sensitive wife. The more he tries to do what is right, the more stinging his persisting headaches seem to become. Arthur Burns, we find, is well versed in poetry and literature, and a member of his gang has a voice that, as Arthur rightly points to Charlie (and, in an oblique way, to us), could easily “put the nightingales to shame.” But soon enough we are shown their ability in engaging in acts of incalculable and abominable cruelty unmatched in any movie I’ve seen in recent times. Similarly, the barren Australian land, undoubtedly a vital character of the movie, could be referred to as harsh and evocative in equal measures – a land in desperation and seemingly fighting a losing battle to come to terms with its identity. These portrayals of diametrically conflicting depictions or the undeniable dichotomy of life, alleviate the movie from a tale of graphic and deeply disturbing violence to one of poetic lyricism with extremely palpable and relevant philosophical overtones.
Perhaps nowhere this dichotomy is more visible than in what is arguably the most brilliantly picturized sequence of the film. Stanley is confident of Mikey’s naiveté and innocence of any wrongdoing; however the people of the local community are oblivious of any rationality and thus want him to be publicly flogged in accordance with the official diktat. While a brutal-looking policeman starts lashing the wildly wailing kid, the graphic violence of the scene is wonderfully juxtaposed with a deeply moving and melancholic song performed by a character who we know should have been punished instead. And soon we see the vulgar callousness in the faces of the seemingly apathetic onlookers getting replaced by creases of concern and realization of the utter uselessness of what is taking place for their gratuitous pleasure. And this is here where the director so subtly puts it that the so-called civilians and villains are but the opposing sides of the same coin. Violence is part of human life and hence its presence is utterly inescapable and sadly unavoidable.
The acting is majestic and awe-inspiring throughout. Guy Pearce, famous for his career making turn in the explosive thriller Memento, has an strong presence despite the laconic and strangely subdued persona of his character Charlie. He seems to be more adept in speaking with his eyes and facial expressions than with his mouth. Ray Winstone’s Capt. Stanley is like a Greek tragic hero as an anachronistic law-enforcer with a noble pursuit. The more the situation gets horrific, the more he seems to succumb to disillusionment and disorientation. Danny Huston is imperious as Arthur – a man capable of blood-curling violence and yet with a suave, chaste-speaking and educated presence that can be devilishly misleading. The gradual revelations of his true nature are thus that much more chilling. And finally John Hurt as an old, withered, decrepit, smooth talking skeleton of a man, though in essence a ruthless and opportunistic bounty hunter, is unforgettable in his cameo as a manic guy capable of wild swings insofar as his apparent and actual self are concerned.
The harrowing tale of death, loneliness, violence and prejudice has been given a poignant touch thanks to the vivid cinematography that has succeeded in capturing the stark as well as the arresting, and the terrific folksy background score (by rock musician Nick Cave who also wrote the searing and deftly detailed screenplay) that manages to impinge the viewers’ hearts with a deep sense of melancholy and sadness despite the carnage and simmering hostility being shown onscreen. Thus like in any good movie, though the final output is the director’s creation and moment of glory, all the supporting departments have coordinated exceedingly well and contributed that extra inspired step to make the movie what it is. I guess one could call the above statement clichéd, but that’s the long and short of it.
The Proposition, which could easily qualify as one of the best Australian movies ever made, is a darkly visceral poetry on violence and a philosophical study on human and societal decadence, which, in more ways than one, reminded me of another masterpiece of recent times that managed to seamlessly combine a mournful tone with a disturbing content, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence.