Nick Cave is known for the dark atmospheres of his records, usually macabre stories of people living in the underbelly of society, punctuated with lyrical piano songs about heartbreak and sexual politics. It's Cave's songwriting, specifically his lyrical skills the form the backbone of these sonic worlds, heavy with image and emotion. Nick Cave made the step into literature several years ago with a book called And The Ass Saw The Angel, that proved he could sustain the emotional power of his lyrics over a long narrative, and without benefit of musical accompaniment.
Nick Cave has crossed into another medium recently with The Proposition, a film that for which he wrote the screenplay. Nick Cave delivers on every expectation ignited by his recordings and persona. Set in the outback of Australia in the late 1800's, The Proposition follows a beleaguered law man Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) determined to “civilize” the outback. The film begins in the aftermath of a brutal attack by the Burns Brothers on a family in the small town in which the Captain lives.
The Captain manages to track down Mike ( Richard Wilson) and Charlie (Guy Pearce) Burns, the two younger brothers, after they separate from the oldest and most savage brother Arthur (Danny Huston), who's made it up into the caves beyond the willingness of anyone to search. Captain Stanley makes a deal with Charlie that if he seeks out Arthur deep in the caves of the Australian outback and kills him, he will release the young and sensitive Mikey. Charlie has until Christmas Day to return or Mikey will hang.
The next hour of the film watches as everyone unravels as they wait for Charlie to return. Captain Stanley is trying to keep secret from the township that he had hold of Charlie and let him go. Captain Stanley's wife (Emily Watson) represents the delicate balance of civilized society, wanting justified revenge against the murderers who have encroached on the civilized world by attacking a neighbor. Looming over the tense social dance taking place between the civil, the savage, the sensitive, the noble, and the white and the black is a magistrate dispatched to make sure that justice is done by the Captain.
Meanwhile a similar battle is taking place with Charlie as he must decide between the loyalty of blood, and the greater good as he moves closer to his brother. One of the most compelling dramas taking place however is in Mikey's prison cell as he waits to see whether or not his brother will return in time to save him from the townsfolk, yet also knowing that such a return will signal the murder and filial betrayal of his oldest brother Arthur.
The cast in and of itself was bound to make The Proposition worth watching, but the psychological drama underpinning the typical western plot elevated the film. More so though, The Proposition succeeds in sustaining drama and tension through the images brought together by Nick Cave's screenplay, and the images which director John Hillcoat has used to carry them out. In one instance we see Captain Stanley's wife's alabaster skin as she takes a bath and recounts to her husband a dream she's had, and the weathered skin of the aborigine house servant as he takes leave of the house for the holiday, leaving his shoes behind on the porch and walking off into the vast desert. All of this from the starting frame to the ending frame is played out against the stark Australian landscape that threatens to crowd everything else out with it's utter emptiness. Pretenses of civility are always met with an immediate contrast of savagery, well trimmed hats with nests of flies, brightly colored silk skirts against miles of pale sand. A constant tension between what is happening and what is on it's way.