Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Magnificent Proposition

WARNING: Mild Spoilers begin at paragraph 3

There seem to be, as of late, so few occasions when a film concludes and the first words from my mouth are, "what a magnificent script." In this particular instance the words "beautifully tragic and poignant" soon followed in my quiet gasps of amazement. The film, I refer to is the 2005, under rated and quickly dismissed "The Proposition" written by Nick Cave and beautifully directed by John Hillcoat. The Independent Film community embraced it, giving a collective twenty-one award nominations and of those thirteen wins. Three wins for the screenplay alone of which there had been five. For any script that is an honor, for your first, that is a dream, and for Nick Cave, well earned.

I will not make the assumption that if you are reading my journal you are familiar with Nick Cave (and the Bad Seeds), and in doing so I will give you then ample opportunity to familiarize yourself with one of modern day's more somber poets. Blues musics' answer to Edgar Allen Poe, in many ways, as his most well known song is "Red Right Hand" from the aptly titled "Murder Ballads." He's been featured on more than thirty soundtracks and composed more than a dozen. So it seems only natural that this poetic, story telling lyricist and musician would one day have a story too big to fit in a brief ballad. What comes as a surprise is the absolutely remarkable script that he had created, which only speaks to me of a calling that he has perhaps missed and only now begins to find. Evidence will reveal itself when Death of a Ladies' Man is released, another film collaboration with Director John Hillcoat.

Hillcoat, a director who very precisely maintained a level of earthiness and reality to a story which lesser director's may have glamorized in a manner requiring more gun fights and at least one explosion, is not a household name. In fact, he's not readily a Hollywood name either, and I imagine that any cult indy following he may have most likely has begun primarily with this film. Although he directed and co-wrote 1988's Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, which was nominated for Eight AFI Awards and won one for Best Production Design, unless you live in Australia (where the Australian Film Institute awards are given) you wouldn't know the film unless you are a foreign and indy film freak, such as myself. Being unknown, however, is not a bad thing when it comes to artistic quality in Independent Film. The fact that Nick Cave's screenwriting debut wasn't reduced to a Bruckheimer blockbuster with less cursing, more explosions and only PG level nudity and a story line with clear cut good guys and bad guys I think fully demonstrates how and why anonymity can keep the art in tact.

The Proposition of which the title speaks, is a bargain made by a police Captain and a wanted man. The man is a member of a gang of brothers, reputed for vile crimes and slotted to hang for them. The deal: Kill one brother to save yourself and the younger brother. The Captain states plainly, his mission is to "Civilize this land." The opening scene of the film, ironically is a violent shoot out that results in (if I recall) four dead bodies, two of which are unarmed women. It is the Captain's men that have done this...and it is as these bodies are being buried that this statement is made: "I will civilize this land." It is this level of juxtaposition and irony that prevail throughout the film, something that no amateur writer could easily manage with as much grace and ease as Cave. No one moment in the film smacks at you like a fish in the face. The moments are there, they are real and they are at your discretion to accept or deny.

The main players in this tale are of course, the Captain and Charlie Burns, the wanted man with whom he has made his deal. The lives they barter over are the youngest Micky Burns and the eldest Arthur Burns. We later are introduced to another gang member Samuel Stote who is, for lack of a better description, a mindless ape that idolizes Arthur and would lay in front of a train if Arthur told him to. He does, however, have a beautiful singing voice which is used with clever irony on Cave's part. While initially one's impression of the Captain may be of a self-righteous, glory-whore, I assure you that by then end the truth is far more evident, and if you missed it you must pay closer attention. The beauty of Cave's character development is that it is not an obvious arc from beginning to end of who these people are and how their morals balance out. He does not follow the classically taught arc of the three act play.

Many statements are made to the nature of man, the human condition, and more profoundly the nature of survival. Each of the four voices that guide the story are trying to protect something and in turn their idea of survival. The sides are weighted between the Captain and Charlie. On the side of Civility (the Captain's side) is Eden Fletcher, a dapper looking man whose idea of justice is hard-by-the-book punishment with no thought beyond immediate gratification. On Charlie's side is his brother Arthur, a sadist that sits back to watch a woman raped with the same level of appreciation as he does a well-performed song, making no separation between art and violence. However opposite the Captain and Charlie may seem in the beginning, these two men find an odd understanding and balance toward the end when civility and savagery collide and the end result is not justice so much as it is survival, when what is good and what is right overlap through violence, a contradiction in today's social morals divinely presented with such matter-of-factness as to make many people ponder if they are comfortable with the ending or not.

It is difficult to discuss the eloquent points made in a film that is, in comparison to most 'westerns' a much more raw tell-it-like-it-is biopic of a troubled time in Australia's past. I would need to detail dialog and events to truly convey the beauty wrought in the film, however, I am one of those film-lovers who despises when people give away too aspect of this film that makes it so powerful is its lack of pretense, its lack of over dramaticism. A shot man doesn't fly off his feet, he just slumps and falls. A young man facing mortality screams in abject terror and pisses his pants. A crowd doesn't cheer as a man is whipped, but rather grow nauseated at the sight and sounds of the leather on what is no more than raw meat. And the raping of a pregnant woman is viewed with the level of disgust and horror to which our society has long since been desensitized. It is this unexaggerated view of violence that actually more effectively unsettles the audience as it does not allow for us to put up the pretenses that this is fantasy, but rather reminds us that this is life. These things happen, and in the end the questions we are left to ask ourselves are where we lay our boundaries between Justice, Civility and Survival. This seems to be a simply question until one considers a profound statement made by the films character Arthur Burns, the uncomfortably civilized savage.

Samuel Stote: What's a misanthrope?
Two Bob: A misanthrope is a bugger who hates every other bugger.
Samuel Stote: Shut up!! I didn't ask you, black man!
Arthur Burns: Well, Sam, He's right.
Samuel Stote: Are we misanthropes?
Arthur Burns: Lord no! We're family.

At which point you face the same dilemma as Charlie and the Captain: How far is too far for family sake?

I could go on for pages unraveling the nuances of this film. It's power. It's beauty. It's unforgiving truth. I should devote an entire journal to the amazing actors that so ripely brought these characters to fruition. Perhaps another day I will, but for now my stomach reminds me of one of its themes: Survival...and I am hungry.


Candy Man said...

I got to see this in the theatre, luckily. I totally agree with you, I remember how Hillcoat would place his camera in a position and leave it there till he got the desired effect, it reminded me of Ozu, getting that kind of effect is difficult because it relies solely on the actors to create the scene and for this film everyone certainly delivered. Off topic, I would rather see you writing about film than most of the critics out there, you have a wonderful passion for it. Later.

Candy Man

Kahl said...

I think you got that on the spot. I think when you have such a surgically written script and a really strong cast there is no need for anything overly visual. This is very much a character driven piece, the action is what it is but its not the focal point, the characters reactions and interactions no fancy camera work is needed. In other films, when the action is the focus, then fancy effects or move your camera. Unfortunately not enough directors have the fundamental understanding of storytelling to make that distinction and great films are made into good films and good films are awful because of it.

As for my critiques of films...I thank you. I've always had a passion for film and I only hope to turn that passion into an application some day...whether its one of my scripts or someday someone else is remarking on how I used my camera.

In the meantime, I just have my passion....

...and my opinion. I always have my opinion.