The Proposition

Nick Cave was in town recently, talking up The Proposition, for which he wrote both screenplay and score, boasting that the script was written in 21 days (one version) or a weekend (another). He said something to the effect that it was easy for him because he has what most screenwriters lack, that is, talent. Well, no-one could doubt that the probably tongue-in-cheek Mr Cave has talent. However, as was pointed out to me long ago in a graffiti in the back room of a club in Berkeley, below a dripping guitar hero drawn a la Rbt. Crumb complete with ejaculating axe: it takes more than talent ...

I went to The Proposition on Sunday with a friend who is a director. It wasn't as bad a film as I had heard but it wasn't that good either. It was, I guess, a missed opportunity. A great set-up was never really delivered upon, not through absence of talent but rather a lack of that staple of the screenwriter's craft, technique. The middle brother (Guy Pearce, in a fine performance) of three is offered the chance to free his younger, intellectually disabled sibling from death if he will bring in his rogue elder bro, who is psychopathically holed up in the hills somewhere, periodically visiting mayhem on the good and bad citizens of the lowlands.

A warning note for me sounded in the very first scene, a shoot-out in what turns out to be (didn't learn this until the credits) a brothel. The women in the brothel are Asian, presumably Chinese: not historically accurate, my director friend, who is Chinese, told me, there were very few Chinese women in Australia in the C19th and none in brothels frequented by white men, although there were some in Chinese-only brothels a bit later on. However, what bothered me was the wallpaper: faded versions of Japanese erotic prints from the floating world, Utamaro et al. The ahistorical or anachronistic doesn't concern me per se, it was the sense that this kind of cleverness signalled the primacy of style over substance.

The director of The Proposition, John Hillcoat, seems mostly to have made commercials and music videos since his 1988 film Ghosts of the Civil Dead, in which Mr Cave appears. While his direction is otherwise skilled, Mr Hillcoat shows a tendency, common in ad makers, to indulge in visual longeurs of various kinds instead of advancing the action. In like manner, the screenplay is more intent upon constructing vignettes, some quite powerful, than it is on telling a story. The crux of the matter is the relationship between the three brothers and the dilemma posed by the requirement upon the middle one to betray the elder to save the younger. Incredibly, this is never explored in any depth - an oversight which, given the strength of the set-up, strikes me as almost criminal.

Some of the quite trenchant local criticism of The Proposition has focused upon the self-righteousness of its judgmental view of Australia then, and by implication, now. The brothel scene might be a case in point: if there weren't such brothels then, there certainly are now and that was perhaps the point of opening the film where and when they did. Again, I don't mind if Mr Cave and Mr Hillcoat want to take contemporary mores to task by medium of a period film: why not? No, I'm offended by the laxness of the story-telling, the stylistic self-indulgence, the woeful dissipation of the energy of the premise until, by the end, there's simply no dramatic tension left.

That was a Western?

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