by Steve Habrat
For many years, it has been said that the western is a dead genre. It may not be as popular as it once was, but every so often, the genre rides back from the sweaty cinema graveyard and sternly reminds us all that it is alive and well. Take John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian western The Proposition, a clammy, existential stargazer of a picture that appeals to both aging fans of the genre and the wine-sipping art house crowd. There is an echo of Leone here and maybe a faint whistle of Peckinpah there but gently rolled into the center of The Proposition is an apocalyptic rumble that refuses to quit. There are many layers to The Proposition, from a story about the complex relationship between a trio of outlaw brothers to the idea of taming the unruly Australian outback through violent force. Don’t be fooled by the film’s sensitive side as The Proposition can turn on you in an instant, almost like a whiskey-drenched outlaw who has just been disrespected in the local saloon. Yet the real shock comes in the way the film warns us that in a place this wicked and gray, even the most innocent soul isn’t immune to the horrors that can blow in from the plains.
The Proposition takes us into the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, where a savage gang led by the Burns brothers roams about causing mayhem. It is rumored that the Burns brothers gang is responsible for the horrific massacre of the prominent Hopkins family, who appear to have been beloved by the local community. After two of the Burns brothers, simpleton Mikey (Played by Richard Wilson) and clever Charlie (Played by Guy Pearce), are apprehended by lawman Captain Stanley (Played by Ray Winstone), Captain Stanley cons Charlie into riding into the outback and finding their eldest brother Arthur (Played by Danny Huston), who is said to be the deadliest of the Burns brothers gang. Captain Stanley warns Charlie that he has nine days to find and kill Arthur and if he doesn’t, Mikey will be executed. Charlie reluctantly accepts and rides out into territory that is savagely defended by Aboriginal tribes that kill any white man that dares set foot on their land without an army. With the clock ticking, Captain Stanley soon finds himself fending off protests from the community and his fragile wife, Martha (Played by Emily Watson), who was very close with the Hopkins family. As the protests turn violent and his job slowly slips out of his hands, Arthur learns of the plot to bring him down and he sets out to find Captain Stanley and innocent wife.
Set to a gulping bass line and whispery chants from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Proposition hints that a storm of fury is gathering on the horizon, just waiting for the right moment to rain down on the dusty town. The whispers in the score ask “when”, “why”, and “who” as all three of the brothers gaze up at the fiery sun and the twinkling stars. The build up to this storm doesn’t hesitate to linger on the beautiful Australian outback even though we know that this untouched land is slowly being gutted by senseless bloodshed. Nick Cave’s screenplay may use a different location for this squinty showdown but he doesn’t mind drawing from the good old western tradition of waiting around for death to come riding into town on a rusted horse. The outlaws pass the time chatting about love and starring out at the landscape while the military men grunt about the sexual acts they would like to perform on Martha while the Captain is away. We do have to wonder who the real savages are in The Proposition and that question is easily answered as the film moves into its second act. The outlaws use violence to protect their freedom while the Aboriginal tribes are using violence to protect what is rightfully theirs. The military uses senseless slaughter and overkill to send a message, all while flies gather on their sweaty backs. Yet Cave and Hillcoat don’t ever squander an opportunity to show us how senseless all this violence really is. It is written in the reactions of those who pound a drum for it.
With the weighty script in place and an atmospheric score pondering about how this will end, Hillcoat and Cave give their actors plenty of room to really develop their characters. Pearce is a marvel as he silently rides through the rocky terrain, sipping from a bottle of liquor and touring the smoldering ruins of the Hopkins’ home, ruins that now lie empty as their spirits cry out in agony. He is eerily similar to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I’d dare you to find me a modern day gunslinger that doesn’t draw from that legendary cowboy. Huston is a slow burner of a baddie, a sadistic killer who only shows his true colors when he is prodded with a hot poker. You will fear for the fool who dares anger this slumbering beast. Winstone’s collapsing Captain Stanley is desperately trying to provide a safe place for both his wife and himself to call home. It is emotionally draining to see the dim light of hope die in his eyes as things go from bad to worse. Watson brings her fragile gaze to Martha, who only wishes to have a cozy Christmas with her loving husband. You can see the naïve gears in her head turn as she silently tries to comprehend the violence in these outlaws. When this delicate soul is smashed in the final moments of the film, it shatters into tiny pieces that will never be able to be put back together. David Wenham rides into town as Captain Stanley’s boss, Eden Fletcher, who dishes out one hundred lashes to poor Mikey, leaving him a sobbing, bloody heap. Also present is David Gulpillil as Jacko, an Aboriginal tracker who tries desperately to understand the viscous nature of the white man and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a sloshed old bounty hunter searching for Arthur.
The Proposition boils down to a bond between brothers, and what they will end up doing for one another. Despite their shocking actions, they stand by, loyal even as they hold a gun to each other’s head. When the bullets fly across the screen, The Proposition remains ever thoughtful of the situation in front of it. Yet any good western boils down to how affecting the story truly is and I must say that The Proposition is one that sticks to your ribs long after the last gunfighter falls to the ground and a defiled woman shrieks in horror. With an ending as black as night, The Proposition is certainly not a Hallmark western, one where the sheriff walks away triumphant and the outlaw is led away with cuffs around his wrists. Oh no, it is far from it but that doesn’t even begin to spoil the ending of the film. In fact, it seems clear to me that all that time the western has spent out in cinema’s forgotten graveyard has only toughened the genre up and caused it to be a bit more philosophical than it already was before it pulls the trigger.
The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After a string of producing gigs this past summer, Steven Spielberg jumps behind the camera and gives us War Horse, one half of his directorial efforts this past holiday season (The other is The Adventures of Tintin). War Horse, based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, is a finely polished Oscar vehicle that lures out the tears while also bringing families together and making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Spielberg, you sly dog, you! Put your notion that War Horse is just a big budget Hallmark movie that should have been straight to video on the back burner and embrace this sweeping, innocent tale that makes you, the viewer, feel like it is being told to you by your expert storytelling uncle next to a flickering fire on a snowy night. Like any good story, it does take a little while for War Horse to really hit its stride, but when World War I breaks out, the film really draws us in and gets intimate with our easy emotions. War Horse is unabashedly old fashioned, but that actually adds to the event and sent my enjoyment of the film through the roof.
War Horse begins with the birth of a beautiful thoroughbred horse and grows up being admired by Albert Narracott (Played by Jeremy Irvine). A few years pass and Albert’s father Ted Narracott (Played by Peter Mullan) ends up at a horse auction where he is looking for a horse to plow his fields. He finds himself hypnotized by the horse’s beauty and ends up biding all of his money for the horse and brings it home to his horrified wife Rose (Played by Emily Watson) and the delighted Albert. Albert convinces his mother to allow him to keep the horse and train it. He ends up naming the horse Joey and the two bond instantly. Soon, Ted’s landlord Lyons (Played by David Thewlis) comes knocking for rent, but due to the high price Ted paid for Joey, he is unable to come up with the money. Albert agrees to train Joey to plow the fields so that his father can come up with the money owed to Lyons. Shortly after their agreement, World War I breaks out and Ted sells Joey to the army for the amount he owes Lyons. Distraught and furious, Albert volunteers for the army to find Joey and be reunited with him. This takes both Joey and Albert on an adventure they will never forget across lush countryside and bombed out no-mans-lands.
Relentlessly sentimental with emotional cues from John Williams’ majestic score, War Horse is pure Oscar gold that will effortlessly nab a Best Picture nomination by the Academy. Trust me, I’m not complaining about that as I absolutely bought every cheap emotional tug this film sold me. The message is as simple as they get, Spielberg once again praying for peace and begging us to all get along. This time, he uses a regal beast in the form of Joey to send this message. Many may also quickly label the film nothing but child’s play, but that only lasts for the first forty minutes of the movie. Once World War I breaks out, War Horse shifts from wispy children’s tale to muddy and weary war film. Spielberg makes these transitions fluently and he more than makes up for the slow opening by molding a crowd pleasing ending that will add fuel to the fire for those who dislike the blockbuster director and satisfy those who enjoy his work (People like me). One sequence at the end is absolutely stunning and spellbinding, forcing enemies to work together. I will reveal no more than that.
If the film somehow doesn’t nab a Best Picture and Best Director nomination, the actors surely will. Emily Watson’s Rose conveys infinite amounts of hope, support, and affection with a stare. Her eyes really sell her character and she gets some of the films sappiest lines, ones that will really tickle the fans of the Best Adapted Screenplay department. Tom Hiddleston shows up as the gracious Captain Nicholls. His commiseration for Albert’s heartbreak really makes his character memorable. I’ve always found Hiddleston to be able to really morph into his characters he takes on and Captain Nicholls is no different. Niels Arestrup shows up as a French grandfather who radiates with warmth. Mullan’s Ted is a haunted soul; one who has been exposed to the horrors life has to offer. But War Horse really benefits from the performance by Jeremy Irvine as Albert. His love for Joey is unbearably authentic and his dedication for his family can’t be matched. He is old fashioned and cheesy at times, but it fits for a project like this.
Spielberg crafts war sequences that rival what he produced in Saving Private Ryan and they truly are rousing. A tracking shot in the trenches shows us petrified yet proud young men laying down their lives for their country. His cinematography is crisp, spotless, and his scope is extensive and detailed. His battle scenes are bloodless, appropriate for young viewers and a bit easier to swallow compared to his gruesome battles in Saving Private Ryan. A scene involving barbed wire wrapped around a galloping Joey may frighten some young viewers and make adults cringe at the sight. War Horse does effectively show us how pointless war can really be. Are we really any different than our enemies? They have normal lives, professions, and names. Just like us. Condemn him for taking the easy route but Spielberg has found an effective route nonetheless.
War Horse is a must see for craftsmanship alone, a piece for viewers to marvel at the big budget ingenuity, classic storytelling, and proficient performances. The relatively unknown actors give the film a hearty does of vigor. They become real to the viewer versus the alienation of seeing a well-known star. Its message will undoubtedly get lost in the crowd of countless films preaching the same message of hope and unity, but in a way, I feel like some of the blame rests on the shoulders of Michael Morpurgo’s story. Despite some of its clichés, War Horse is a magnificent film and pure Spielberg. Much like the ambiance of War Horse, Spielberg may be starting to become a little traditionalist himself but a little old fashioned conservatism every now and again never hurt anyone. War Horse really finds its stride in the traditional vein of filmmaking.