I am the first one to admit my favorite films are the ones that bend genres, the comedies that make you cry, the romances that make you laugh, the dramas that have bits of the absurd. I used to wonder why films ever wanted to be one thing—why be so one-dimensional? I mean, isn’t that what life is—laughter through the tears and tragedy coming on the heels of joy?
But…..there are those times when I just want to laugh, so I put in This is Spinal Tap. And there are the moments when I want to delve into a drama, so I put in Amadeus. And there is no better action film than Die Hard. These are genre-definers and there are none better.
But what exactly makes a genre? It seems like a clear-cut question, but there are many answers. If you look up “comedy,” you’ll see everything from Annie Hall to Deuce Bigolo: Male Gigolo. Schindler’s List and Erin Brockovich are both dramas. Name one thing that those two films have in common with each other. Aren’t genre films supposed to have similar elements? A Clockwork Orange is science fiction, right? And so is Star Wars? Hmmm.
But there is one genre that seems to be pretty clear-cut in its common elements: the western. From the Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns to High Noon to Dances With Wolves, westerns share similar themes of loneliness, desperation, isolation, betrayal, a search for self, soul-questioning, bonding, justice and righteousness. Some westerns, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, are light-hearted, and some, like Unforgiven, are darker, but they share these elements. Death, hopelessness, violence, and the gruesome side of life—the outlaw way—are universal themes. Yes, it is easy to spot a western. But until today, I don’t think I had seen one western that truly embodied the genre completely. Today I saw a western that fulfills the genre’s potential, a film that defines western, in all its ignobility, rawness, soullessness and righteousness: The Proposition.
It seems ironic that a genre practically born and bred in America (does John Ford ring a bell?) would find its second coming in a film from Australia. But, when you think about it, how perfect is that? Australia is a country almost wholly born from criminals, and that’s what westerns are all about—-outlaws trying to maintain anarchy as the “civilized” ones attempt to build a society based on laws, manners and justice.
Australia and America share a common thread of history: the settling of land and formations of towns and cities came at a large cost as those who ran without law were in battle with those trying to maintain law. Most westerns pit outlaw versus lawman, some westerns pit outlaw versus outlaw or even lawman versus lawman. Some recent westerns, like Unforgiven, pit outlaw versus himself—that is, his own sense of mortality, and, even more important, his own morality.
It is these battles that make westerns truly unique. This is the only modern film genre (excepting stories that take place in ancient times) where brutality and violence are totally accepted as means to an end. The classic shootout at the OK Corral was sort of like natural selection in these worlds, and the sheriff’s badge nearly meaningless.
I digress a bit, but it is important to understand the potential that lies within the genre of a western. Besides Paul Newman and Robert Redford, can you think of a western hero who wasn’t tortured and brooding? There’s just a conflicted nature inherent in these characters, and, as an audience, there is something so satisfying about watching these characters descend into their own darkness, knowing they have to combat their own sense of right and wrong in a world that has none.
Like characters in gangster films, characters in westerns have their own laws, their own rules, and we live vicariously through them, as we sit back in our air-conditioned theatres, with our laws, our manners and our established methods of evolved cohabitation. Back before the rules of humanity were established, we lived like animals. These methods are clear to see in the films set in ancient times, like Gladiator and Braveheart. But what makes the western so uniquely fascinating is they are set in the modern times, less than 200 years ago. That unique combination of a fragile society attempting to cling to its infant structure of law and order and the lawless criminals who prey on that very same instability—therein lies the conflict and the inevitable drama.
No film I have ever seen embodies all of these elements of a true western as does The Proposition, an independent Australian film that you probably have never even heard of. I wouldn’t have heard of it either, if it hadn’t been written by Nick Cave, a musician greatly admired and followed by my girlfriend. He also wrote the soundtrack, which, like his screenplay (and like most of Cave’s music in general) is conflicted, dark, brooding and deeply haunting.
Yet for all the complexities I was expecting in a film written by a man who specializes in exploring the abstract darkness of the human heart, The Proposition is surprisingly straightforward and simple in its storytelling and narrative structure. There’s nothing too complicated here, just a simple plot and a few characters. But what makes this film so deep is the resonant complexities of the time and place—the inherent human conflict between a struggling society and that animal nature inside all of us—the unique atmosphere only a western can illuminate.
The Proposition is a hard film to watch, because it pulls no punches. A real western should be dirty, bloody, violent, sweaty and masculine and this film is. It also establishes the expected basic conflicts and characters. There are outlaws and there are lawmen. Neither are clear-cut and both are tormented. There are brothers, bonded by savagery and there is the pure woman, tainted by the godless land that surrounds her.
This film is filled with famous actors, not that you would recognize any of them. Guy Pearce, seemingly a world away from his most famous roles in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and LA Confidential, plays an outlaw from a family of outlaws, who is given an interesting proposition from a lawman, played by the excellent Ray Winstone (Chronicles of Narnia, Cold Mountain), that he spends the majority of the movie mulling over. What happens in the meantime is the dual existence of the budding society—made up of a hotel, a blacksmith shop, a butcher shop and a jail—and the lawless men who run rampant, wreaking havoc on the otherwise law-abiding citizens. These same citizens have turned to Winstone’s character to establish law in these parts and Pearce’s character is just the kind of criminal the citizens want to see hanging from the nearest tree. So the chase is on, but Winstone’s character must find a way to live with himself and find a way to answer the age-old question—-at what cost comes civilization? This is, at its heart, the question of any good western, and this is the question at the heart of The Proposition.
This is truly an amazing film, incredibly well-acted and surprisingly serene, for all its goriness and brutality (not to mention the flies everywhere.) If you’re a fan of the genre at all, this is a must-see. But all you need to be is a fan of human drama—in all its complexities and intensity—-to appreciate this treasure of a film that will disappear from your theatres before you can say “put ‘em up!”