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The Proposition (2005)

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.

Grade: A

The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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Lawless (2012)

by Steve Habrat

If I have learned one thing at the movies this summer, I have learned that Tom Hardy is one scary man. I think if I were to pass him on the sidewalk, I’d quickly cross the street to avoid him. As if his villainous turn as hulking terrorist Bane in The Dark Knight Rises wasn’t enough to make this guy one intimidating bastard, wait until you get a load of him in director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, a Prohibition era thriller about bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia. Based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Hillcoat’s thriller, which is based on a true story, does find a few common gangster movie qualities blotching the screenplay by Nick Cave. However, Lawless is saved by the explosive performances from this must-see ensemble cast, who all seem to be relishing this material. Still, I really wish I could say that Lawless avoided things we have seen from movies like this in the past but sadly, it gets caught in the same web that many of these films do. The story line does gasp one breath of fresh air by its use of Prohibition as the backdrop for these outlaws. I also admired the setting, far away from the big city bustle and nestled in the hills where Mother Nature isolates the Bondurant boys behind her natural wooded wall. Yet Lawless is sent into the stars by the terrifying turn from Hardy, a role that I can only hope is not forgotten come Awards season.

Welcome to the hills of Prohibition era Franklin County, Virginia, a serene and seemingly peaceful place where bootlegging runs rampant.  The stars of this bootlegging party are the Bondurant boys, who seem to be on top of the world just out of the clutches of the law. The Bondurant boys are made up of the quiet but threatening Forrest (Played by Tom Hardy), who is also the leader of the group, hothead Howard (Played by Jason Clarke), and runt Jack (Played by Shia LaBeouf). The boys run their illegal business out of their dusty roadside bar but they soon find themselves harassed by flamboyant Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Played by Guy Pearce), a hot shot from Chicago who wants a cut of the profits that the Bondurant boys bring in. After Forrest refuses, Rakes comes down hard on the bootleggers nestled in the hills and slowly begins shutting down their operations in the most brutal ways he can. After a nasty run in with Jack and a murder attempt is made on Forrest, a war is sparked in the Franklin County hills but the Bondurants have no intention of shutting down their business.

Cold and bristly, with tons of blood to get tossed around the furiously exhaustive sets, Lawless sure is one hell of a vicious ride into an untamed world. Prohibition is something that you never hear too much about, so it comes as a major shock to see it done with so much fury. People are harshly stabbed, shot, tarred, feathered, rapped, tortured, and beaten, cutthroat punishments for a cutthroat business I suppose. Despite the horrific violence (trust me, it is horrific), the film itself boasts rich amounts of cinematography from Benoit Delhomme, who makes every scene of the film appropriate to cut out and frame on your wall. While the film has plenty of violence to go around, there are some thick dramatics draped over this lawless world, so thick that you could almost cut it with a dull and rusty blade. There are two delicately delivered romances, one between Forrest and bar waitress Maggie Beauford (Played by Jessica Chastain), a former dancer looking that desperately wanted a quiet life but has stumbled into something worse and one between Jack and Bertha Minnix (Played by Mia Wasikowska), a seemingly innocent preacher’s daughter with a rebellious streak. Both are delivered with heart-on-the-sleeve compassion, making us root for both love stories to triumph in this world of blood.

Lawless achieves a must-see status due to the performances, especially the one from the hulking Hardy, who portrays Forrest Bondurant as a grunting bear of a man who speaks in a southern drawl that sounds like grinding gravel mixed with thick globs of molasses. While he is technically the good guy, Hardy owns any room he walks into and he leaves you wiping the sweat off of your palms when he leaves. The characters all whisper that Forrest is invincible and you will be left half believing it throughout the runtime. At times, he can be surprisingly funny, especially when Chastain’s Maggie tries to offer some affection his way. When he has his back against the wall, God forbid he reaches in his cardigan pocket and pulls out his dread brass knuckles, which he uses with precise savagery. While Hardy deserves a spot in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Academy Awards, he finds some competition from Pearce, a corrupt lawman with oily hair and dressed in fancy suits. Pearce, who I swear is incapable of delivering a lousy performance, is just as unpredictable as Hardy when it comes to his temper.  Vaguely perverted and as slippery as they come, he is a corrupt soul who finds delight in bringing down a wave of misery on all who cross him.

In a way, it is almost a shame that Hardy and Pearce are so good because they actually overshadow the other great performances. LaBeouf, who has recently said that he is done with big studio films, punches in a subtle performance that slowly flares up into an uncontrollable rage. He’s a runt that becomes reckless and you will hate him for it, especially when he has a good thing right in the palm of his hand. That good thing is sweet Bertha, the gentle daughter of a preacher who hides her interest in the business that Jack and his brothers are into. Clarke gets to play the bloodthirsty psycho of the three Bondurant boys. You will cringe when Forrest decides to let him off his leash and you pray that Forrest puts him back on it the second he is unleashed. Chastain is as gorgeous as ever as the delicate Maggie, who has the hots for the closed off Forrest. Along with Wasikowska’s Bertha, they form a calming force that balances out all the violence. Dane DeHaan joins this gangster party as the handicapped Cricket, who helps the Bondurant boys brew the their liquor. Rounding out the supporting players is the superb Gary Oldman, who stops by to blow us all away as Floyd Banner, a mobster who enjoys carrying a Tommy gun around and blasting away right in front of an innocent audience.

As the sense of doom wafts through the trees of Franklin County, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide an appropriately nippy score that is all twanging guitars, bluegrass chants, and static hums that slowly build as the tension mounts. Lawless certainly suffers from some predictability but I will say that there are a few surprise scenes that really catch you off guard. Still, I am willing to forgive because Hillcoat’s work draws you in close and then refuses to let you walk away cleanly. He shakes you up and he does it in such a tasteful manner. While I can’t say that I liked Lawless as much as Hillcoat’s scorching Australian western The Proposition, I will say that I enjoyed the film a bit more than his previous big screen offering The Road. Overall, Lawless may be brewed from a recipe we have all tried before but this batch has enough burn going down and a unique lingering buzz to have you reaching for a second shot and maybe even a third.

Grade: A-