What Fresh Hell Is This?
Like a bucket of soft, cuddly, roly-poly kittens comes The Proposition rolling into a theater near you. Well, no, actually: It’s more like a bucket of mutilated radioactive mutant dwarf tigers with ferocious teeth and rabies. Which is why only the hard, jaded moviegoers of NYC, L.A., and Chicago can, at the moment, betake of this cinematic charnel house of flayed and gunshot flesh, dysfunctional sibling rivalry, Western revisionism, and historically appropriate bad dental work. Oh, it’s coming this Friday to San Fran, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, San Diego, Portland (Oregon, of course), Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta, but frankly, I’m not sure if Minneapolis and Atlanta are ready for this one. It’s all rather thrilling, as cinematic charnel houses go, but then I’m one of those hard and jaded city types whom life has conditioned to expect rabid tigers instead of cuddly kittens.
The fresh hell is the Australian outback in the 1880s, a hot-as-Hades and godawfully grueling place where everyone — even the local lawman’s demure wife — wears sweat stains like a fashion accessory and Sam Peckinpah’s ghost wanders like an uneasy shade. And not the kind of shade that gives respite from the heat. A much angrier and more explosively violent shade is Guy Pearce’s Charlie Burns, Irish immigrant gone outlaw — Pearce (Till Human Voices Wake Us, The Time Machine) is spectre-thin and raggedly haggard, like he hasn’t had a solid meal in months but not for lack of fishing around dumpsters on garbage day. But his Charlie is fired with a creepy-delightful slow smolder of bitter rage against the general fucked-up-edness of the world — delightful as an example of Pearce’s genius intensity, but creepy in that you’d never want to run into Charlie Burns, ever.
And he’s the upstanding member of the Burns gang, relatively speaking. He’s got enough human feeling — or something able to approximate it — under that zombie exterior to take the deal offered by British lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone: The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Arthur): Stanley will let Charlie’s dumb, kicked-puppy little brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) go free if Charlie hunts down and kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston: The Aviator, Birth), whom Stanley believes is the head of their little rape-and-murder club. It’s hard to imagine anyone believing Stanley will hold up his side of the deal, much less a hardened criminal like Charlie, but off Charlie goes to find Arthur, who’s hiding out in even more remote corners of the outback, perhaps only as a stopgap until a better plan to keep both brothers alive presents itself. Or perhaps not.
“Zombie” is good: invoking horror movies is as perfectly fitting here as invoking Westerns like Unforgiven. All hints of the fairy tale of “the frontier” have been seared out of this tale, written by music legend Nick Cave, of Bad Seed fame, and man, is that ironically apt, and directed by John Hillcoat: even the lovely garden Martha Stanley (Emily Watson: Punch-Drunk Love, Gosford Park) has wrenched out of the desert sand is more like a bull’s-eye that will inevitably draw poetic retribution than any kind of actual oasis from ugly and evil. The bad guys are fully aware of their badness — “Why can’t you ever just stop me?” Arthur asks Charlie plaintively about the elder’s propensity for doing really stupid, nasty, antisocial, violent things. And there aren’t any good guys at all: Stanley turns out to be a lot more complicated than we’re expecting (and Winstone’s performance a lot more subtle than we’ve come to expect from his previous roles — this may be his best work yet), but even if his claim that he “will civilize this land” is, to his thinking, earnest and high-minded, it’s emblematic of a cultural relativism that — to the thinking of present-day Australians Hillcoat and Cave — is its own kind of evil: this land is civilized already, the defeated Aborigine characters hovering at the fringes of the story like ghosts themselves attest, and the brand of “civilization” these white intruders bring is a nightmare. The most horrifying character in the whole damn film — with John Hurt’s (V for Vendetta, The Skeleton Key) brutal bounty hunter is a runner-up — may be David Wenham’s (Van Helsing, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) effete “civilized” man, Stanley’s boss and town official, whose sadism is proof positive that “civilization” is no guarantee of civility.
Like any good horror movie, there’s plenty of blood and gore and terror, but it’s actually scary here, cuz it ain’t about maniac serial-killer boogeymen who exist only in nightmares but about the everyday evil of ordinary men.