Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strange mob, you whites

The Proposition 2005 Australia/U.K. (101 minutes) directed by John Hillcoat, screenplay by Nick Cave.
Erin’s larrikins scaring settler and native alike, leading Anglo lawmen a merry chase across vast uninhabited rocky dryscapes on horseback: Australia in the 1880s seems not a lot different from the late 19th century American West.
The legends made colorful latter-day Robin Hoods of men who probably did not much differ from the hard-living outlaw motorcycle gangsters of our time or Australia’s futuristic movie ‘road warriors’.
This stylish, watchable Australian Western (it actually takes place in the Outback of Queensland, then a territory, now a state in eastern Australia) nods Eastwoodward. A hard man with a conscience is called on to do a tough job that softer moralists are unable to do, though are seldom without strong opinions and directions as to how he should proceed.
Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone), a former British imperial soldier serving as a territorial law officer, must bring in the rogue Burns brothers. The Burnses allegedly raped and massacred three settlers, including a pregnant woman, and burnt their homestead.
Captain Stanley surrounds and wipes out part of the gang, capturing two of the brothers, Charlie—Guy Pearce, nearly unrecognizable as an Australian incarnation of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’—and teenager Mikey (Richard Wilson) Burns.
But these are not the brothers that he and Crown legal authorities really want. Charlie apparently left the gang to keep Mikey away from the outlaw life. Arthur (Danny Huston), the eldest brother, is a highly literate psychopath holed up with his remaining henchmen, living in caves in a mesa deep in the Outback, ‘a God-forsaken place’ where ‘the [natives] won’t go, nor the trackers.’
Becoming ‘more inventive’ in his methods, Captain Stanley offers Charlie the ‘proposition’ of the title. Charlie can go free, but Mikey will remain as a hostage and hang on Christmas Day, nine days away, if Charlie does not find and kill Arthur by that time.
Captain Stanley believes this private, extrajudicial arrangement to be the most effective way of getting Arthur out of the picture. He appears to be willing to keep his word if Charlie comes through.
Thus, the Australian ‘Man with No Name’ lights out across the flats after Arthur and his gang, crossing increasingly desperate terrain that includes hostile natives and bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a free versifying Shakespearean clown handy with a knife and ‘ligatures.’ For Lamb also is on the hunt for Arthur.
Captain Stanley has his own fish to fry after his ‘proposition’ becomes public knowledge. Restive townspeople, angered that he let Charlie Burns go, want to lynch Mikey outright; his officers question his authority. Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), apparently a Crown representative, is an epicene Victorian hypocrite who disdains the lowly soldier. The captain’s dear wife Martha (Emily Watson), a porcelain Victorian dam whom he tries to shelter from ‘police business,’ expects retribution to be exacted for the deaths of the Burns’ female victims. 
The outcome is not a surprise. Most of the characters get what they wished for, which, true to the genre, turns out to be a lot more than they asked for.
The landscapes are splendid: the flats of the great Australian Outback in their vast, sun-bleached rawness, seen with an eye informed by the cinematography of the American West. But this new terrain would require a different eye.
In pursuit of a band of renegade Aborigines, Jacko (David Gulpilil), a Maori police tracker, tells Sergeant Lawrence (Robert Morgan) that he sees smoke as casually one might note a passing detail, though the smoke literally is as far as his native eye can see. An Australian Eastwood or John Ford surely would find a way to show this difference, rather than simply point out the White Man’s grunted inadequacy.
Eastwood also would have given us more insight into what these characters are doing in this story. The strong cast draws one in, but despite tantalizing snippets here and there, their actions raise more questions than they frame. Who are these Irish brothers? Where did they come from? Why did they kill the settlers in the first place? What are the Captain and Mrs. Stanley doing here? Who exactly is Fletcher?
The stirring music may provide an overabundance of riches. The film starts with the traditional There is a Happy Land sung over photos of nineteenth century frontier Australia interspersed with photos in a similar style of the film’s cast on set in costume. This plaintive hymn knocks on to screenwriter Nick Cave’s haunting, contemporary The Rider. One of the gang croons Peggy Gordon; Jellon Lamb warbles a rude version of Danny Boy to taunt the Irish Charlie Burns, though several decades before the song was penned.
Literati might chafe at a better-known anachronism. Looking into the unrelenting landscape, Captain Stanley remarks: ‘What fresh hell is this!’ It hits the mark and sounds right at first, and though entirely within the realm of the possible, it was Dorothy Parker who is best remembered for saying it some fifty years later.
Yet despite these shortcomings, the movie holds a viewer’s interest because it puts a good story in the hands of an able cast in an incredible landscape.

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