Having missed its theatrical release, I was quite curious to see why The Proposition (2005) had been selected – as the most recent film by some distance – to play at the TCM Classic Movie Festival. Turns out I should have studied the program a little more; it was playing as part of a tribute to the Huston family as a Hollywood dynasty, from Grandpa Walter, to writer-director John, scions Anjelica and Danny and now their actor nephew Jack.
The Proposition is quite an oddball movie. It’s usually described as a western: set in 1880, with people riding horses, wearing hats and shooting each other. It’s intrinsically and specifically Australian, from the colonialist context to some vague aboriginal spirituality and the unique hell-on-earth of the boiling outback. It concerns itself with a misfit outlaw family, to whom Danny Huston just managed to stop short of comparing his own clan in yet another formal introduction (which TCM halfwit Ben Mankiewicz kicked off by asking, basically “Why was your Irish accent so bad?”) Incidentally Ben, it wasn’t director John Hillcoat’s debut and neither of Ray Winstone or Emily Watson are Australian.
British police captain Winstone sets Guy Pearce to catch his own semi-demonic brother (Huston), who in turn gets to glow in firelight and lurch around in a shaggy wig. The news that Nick Cave wrote the script in two weeks explains somewhat why character development, motivation and relationships are all minimal (Watson struggles bravely with a decidedly disconnected role as the captain’s wife) yet it falls short of the ancient mythical quality of which he is so fond (the initial proposition is simply idiotic; the climactic act borderline inexplicable). His score likewise falls short, mostly electronic drones and a tiresome fiddle line too often used as wallpaper and the over riding/landscape montages are intrusively superfluous.
Those landscape shots are fine, but never as breathtaking as one suspects they’d like to be (silhouettes at sunset are pretty straightforward stuff) and the photography and lighting overall have a distractingly uneven quality. In fact, there is little as impressive as the opening shack-bound shoot-out, all bullet-hole light beams and unexpected spurts of blood (would that last night’s projectionist had managed to sync the sound correctly). The production design is impeccable, everyone’s fantastically dirty (Pearce has particularly good hat hair and benefits from a lot of time without his shirt on) and the violence throughout is sudden and bloody, but never gratuitous or excessive.