The Proposition movie poster
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The Proposition movie poster

The Proposition Movie Review

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John Hillcoat and Nick Cave serve up a ravishing and brutal new vision of the western against the Australian outback in the tense and lyrical The Proposition.

Following such films as Straw Dogs, Unforgiven, and A History of Violence, this is not merely a violent film; it is a film about violence. But rather than implicitly criticizing the audience's acceptance or enjoyment of violence, The Proposition focuses on the emotional havoc done on and by its characters in variously motivated acts of violence. The violence is abrupt, unsettling and devastating. It interrupts placid scenes so frequently that it could come across as a cheap trick for audience thrills, but the effects of the violence as played out in other interactions between characters and the complex web of violence and counter-violence that plunge the characters into moral conflict shows this tendency as thematically motivated. One of the great achievements of the film is the incredible tension in a straightforward, practically paced Christmas dinner scene. By the time this scene comes around, the audience is held in the same grip that holds the psyches of its characters, permanently scarred by the brutality that engulfs them.

Yet while eruptions of violence show the movie at its most intense, the rest of the movie is often more gripping and always more poetic. What makes this film unforgettable is a distinct and pervasive atmosphere conjured by the synthesis of searing cinematography of an incredible landscape (used to more effects than I have room to explore here) and an outstanding soundtrack that could dethrone Neil Young's work in Jarmusch's Dead Man as the most transcendent, innovative soundtrack in a recent western.

This is all without even mentioning the terrific cast of characters. Stand out performances of Nick Cave's tough, wry screenplay are given by Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, divided middleman of the law and the land; Emily Watson as his wife, clinging to semblances of civilization and obsessed by the rape her husband is sent to avenge; John Hurt as a repulsive yet charismatic bounty hunter; David Wenham as Eden Fletcher, manifest destiny personified (brutal selfishness in the guise of sophistication/divine right); Guy Pearce as Charlie, the story's quiet yet intensely conflicted center; and Danny Huston as his older brother, a Kurtz figure that facilitates our relationship with the environment (seen many times on the brink of a cliff with his arms widened to the desert expanse) in a way that parallels the golden-throated bushranger in his gang as cruel and mythically beautiful. The aboriginals, both employed and mistreated by the imperialists, are given a respectable role by the filmmakers, quietly dubious of and slyly mocking the civilizing intents of the lawmen.

Hillcoat, I was somewhat surprised to find, is a successful and much sought after music video director. While the editing compliments the music in an excellent way, the directing establishes an epochal environment grand and complex instead of merely entrancing the viewer.

Many elements of this film on their own make it worth seeing; their poetic synthesis into something mythical makes it a must for those who can stomach honest violence.

Soaring, devastating cinema. A+

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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