Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Quick Thoughts on John Hillcoat's The Proposition

It's been a while since I've posted anything on I offer up these random thoughts I had while watching The Proposition today on HD OnDemand.  It appears that the film will be on through the end of the month and into May. Check it out if you haven't seen it back to more boring Education classes...

John Hillcoat’s down under western The Proposition shares a lot in common with the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Both artists are interested in the stark, uncompromising – almost primitive – way violence affects their characters (and their viewers/readers); both artists are interested in placing this violence in the realm of the western; and both of these artists succeed at taking a genre that is wholly American – traditionally easily digestible and altogether satisfying because of the tidiness the genre lends itself to – and turning it into something more existential and ambiguous. It’s no wonder Hillcoat went on to make McCarthy’s The Road in 2009, because watching The Proposition one cannot help but think of not just the brusque violence found in McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Crossing, but the mood of McCarthy is evident here, too. The Proposition is a film that deserves mention next to McCarthy’s novels as that kind of film that can evoke what the great American author so often accomplishes (especially with “The Border Trilogy”): a kind of assaying of violence in the west as seen through a mythological lens.

The Proposition’s violence is juxtaposed with the beautiful and vast Australian backdrop (almost too big for cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s camera) and the punk-country western music by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay) fits in perfectly with the kind of anarchistic and unpredictable nature of the violence and the kind of spirit the film emits. The cast is superb here as Guy Pierce and Danny Houston have never been better, and the always reliable vest Emily Watson and Ray Winstone really make the final moments of horror palpable. The film is beautiful to look at (except for when that beauty is interrupted, and sometime splattered, with the film’s austere violence); the music, especially that haunting opening song, is appropriate in evoking the appropriate mood of this alien western; the performances are all top notch; and most amazing is Hillcoat’s ability to take the western genre, make it violent and brutal, and turn it into an experience that is akin to reading a McCarthy novel. That is about the highest praise I think one can bestow on this film.


  1. Your word economy here is impressive, and yes there was a definite connection between Hillcoat and McCarthy in stark imagery and sudden violence, elements that certainly informed THE PROPOSITION. This film for me recalls THE CHANT OF JIMMIE BLACKSMITH, one of the greatest of all Australian films, a work with an existential underpinning, primitive and shocking violence, which alternated with a languorous pace that still showcased the vast and beautiful expanses of the Australian landscape. (beautifully negotiated by Benoit Delhomme)
    There is a sense of moral ambiguity running through THE PROPOSITION, and repeated viewings do enhance it's artistry. That's quite a bit of praise you issue there by suggesting that Hillcoat crafts a film that is "akin to reading a McCarthy novel."
    You have made me want to watch this again soon, though I'll admit I'm not a big fan of THE ROAD.
    Terrific capsule here Kevin!

  2. One of my all-time favourite films. One stand-out moment for me is the scenes in the town where the flies are everywhere. Filthy, brutal, but a fact of day-to-day life there.

  3. Sam:

    I haven't seen that Australia western you mention. I'll have to check that out. You're right about the moral ambiguity here...I had forgotten a lot about this film when I started watching it yesterday, and I really only put it on because I wanted some background noise while I worked on some homework; however, that backfired because about ten minutes in I was totally absorbed. I was reminded of why I liked the film so much to begin with. The bigger, existential themes are really broached here like they are in McCarthy's novel (obviously), but the violence is certainly reminiscent of McCarthy's most brutal passages out of things like Blood Meridian.

    Thanks for the kind words, Sam.

  4. Lee:

    Oh man...that scene is BRUTAL. I had forgotten about it and was shocked while I was watching it unfold. Hillcoat's decision to crosscut the brutality with the other brothers resting in their hideaway, and the amazing music added to the montage makes for a great scene. And then Hillcoat goes and punctuates the moment with a brutally ironic punchline when after all that we have seen him go through we hear that he it has only been 30 out of the 100 lashings. Sheesh. What a scene...and yes, those flies. That scene really makes me excited to see what Hillcoat did with McCarthy's The Road.

    Thanks for the comment, Lee.

  5. That's a great piece, Kevin. I too was bowled over by this austere, stunningly beautiful & revisionist Aussie Western. I haven't read enough of Cormac McCarthy to fully appreciate the comparisons you've made between his books & this film. But having read his No Country for Old Men, and if that is a good book by which to form a vague judgement about the author, I sure can see what you meant.

    The movie, as you mentioned with a hint of black humour, is terrific to look at except for the moments when the near-serene beauty of the imaged & the narrative, get punctuated by extreme, graphic violence & brutality. And the score - amazing!!! I loved the depiction of characters who, on one hand, have the kind of compassion, faculty & intellectual ability to appreciate or indulge in the arts & music, and on the other indulge in acts that are immeasurably despicable, or, the the English cop says, abomination. The performances too are very good throughout.

  6. You just reminded me I picked this up on Blu-ray in a $9.99 bargain bin at Target, and I've yet to see it.

    Though deeply flawed, I liked Hillcoat's adaptation of THE ROAD and look forward to checking this one out.

    P.S. You should crosspost this over at Decisions at Sundown.

  7. Shubhajit:

    Thanks for the kind words. I highly recommend McCarthy's "Border Trilogy" (especially The Crossing) and his brilliantly ultra violent western Blood Meridian.

  8. Tony:

    Thanks for stopping by. I've seen The Proposition in those bargain bins at Target and thought about buying it. 9.99 is a great deal for an amazing looking western on Blu Ray. I've heard that about The Road...but I'm intrigued regardless to see what the product looks like. I'm also really interested in seeing what Andrew Dominik does with McCarthy's Cities of the Plain.

    I'll cross post this at our other blog...good idea.

  9. I remember watching The Proposition in early 2007, a few months after its release, and I was surprised because I found the film to be such a wholly satisfying, perfect experience. Seeing the movie again recently on IFC a couple of times, I'm not sure if I still think it's a perfect film, but it nevertheless remains the greatest Western made in a decade. After I saw this film, I quickly made it a point to remember John Hillcoat's name.

    And I'm glad I did. I was thrilled after I heard he was directing The Road, and was crushed when it didn't get the late 2008 release it was supposed to have gotten; I'm sure that if it did I would have far and away called it to the best film of the year (it possibly could have crushed Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars, too, had it been nominated). When I finally saw it in late 2009, I was pleased with the results. I don't love it as much as The Proposition, but that didn't stop me from naming it as the #2 film of 2009. He did McCarthy justice.

    Hillcoat has a unique filmmaking approach to the Western, and to the apocalyptic genre as well. Sam Peckinpah would be proud, as would John Huston... perhaps this is why Danny Huston is in The Proposition- because he recognized the gleaming themes first pioneered by his father.