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What I Watched Last Night

A 2005 film from Australia called The Proposition showed up on cable last week. I was intrigued at the possibilities of a Western out of Australia. How would it differ from American Westerns? What were the unique circumstances of colonizing and civilizing Australia that both paralleled and diverged from the American experience? I've been to Australia and know that, like Canadians, Aussies aren't just Americans with funny accents. However, you wouldn't know that by watching The Proposition, a cliche-ridden American Western rip-off that revels in ultraviolence (my full review here). OK, just another couple of mindlessly spent hours, not an unusual experience for a film critic.

What really amazed me was what I found when I turned to the opinions of my fellow critics. The 86% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes left me speechless.

Here are a few of the opinions that greeted me:

"One vicious, hypnotic piece of work - a stark slow burner with heavy biblical overtones that builds to a jarring climax . . . you know, kind of like a Nick Cave song." (Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly)

"An Australian western without genre traditions in mind - instead, their movie explores the complexities of moral relativity." (Jeff Chen, Window to the Movies)

"The finest, strangest and most uncompromising western to hit screens since Unforgiven." (Chris Barsanti, Film Journal International)

"The movie gets at something primal in the pit of your stomach, something that speaks of loyalty and betrayal, of men's souls - or the lack thereof." (Eleanor Ringel Gillespie, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

"Four Stars" (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)

Now, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but honestly, this story is as schematic a Western as ever there was. There's a mind-numbingly scary gang (e.g., real-life outlaws Frank and Jesse James and their gang, the Clantons, and fictional gangs led by Liberty Valance in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Frank Miller in High Noon). There's a sheriff with a delicate wife charged with bringing them in. There are townspeople lusting for blood and cowering in fear. There are Indians (Aboriginals) who don't do much but get slaughtered, raid homesteads, and act as turncoat guides for the white men. So there goes the argument about "without genre traditions." Australia has genre traditions - ours! Even moral relativity is well established by American anti-Westerns like Unforgiven and The Searchers - and explored much better. In addition, it's hard to have one's "thoughts provoked" (Philip Wuntch, Dallas Morning News) when you're constantly dodging blood on the screen. Perhaps the poetry the mad dog leader of the pack spouts passes for thought . . .

So what really accounts for the hyperbolic praise this film has received? I'd call it the style-over-substance ethos that is such a pervasive part of our culture. It's an ethos that insists that we can't just like pornographic violence for its own sake or pretty landscapes because they look so sexy. Instead we have to invest these pleasurable, but base, appetites with something "meaningful," particularly if the packaging comes in a somewhat novel form. If this had been set in Arizona instead of Queensland, it would have found an audience - including me because I'm in the mood for movies like this once in a while - but not this rapturous attention.

The Proposition benefits from following in the footsteps of Out of Africa, a travelogue masquerading as a feature film that was so pretty it won the Best Picture Oscar for 1985. All hail Benoit Delhomme, the talented DP who got some great grounding working with first-rate director Claude Berri and then made a lot of indie films look better than they deserved, including this one. Australia never looked so good, with its limitless horizons and multicolored sunsets. Violence never looked so good, either. His slo-mo exploding heads and shattering arm sockets approach Jackson Pollock in the artistry of their spill execution. He also works with director John Hillcoat to get those great money shots of smashed-in faces and dripping blood hand-wrung from the leather straps of a whip. Perhaps you prefer the gossamer gauziness of Wong Kar Wai petit fors like In the Mood for Love, but the styles are two sides of the same coin - style, no substance.

This film benefits from an additional element - its ability to ride on the reputation of its writer. If you like Nick Cave, who wrote the screenplay, how can you not like this movie? It does what his songs do - at least that's what at least half of the top 10 Rotten Tomatoes critics said (see the Sean Burns quote above). I was also struck by how many critics referenced other works of art they love to show why they love this film. Does reminding one of someone else's fine piece of creation make this film a creative success in and of itself? Not really. When I compare it to High Noon, for example, a film to which it certainly owes a great debt, I find it extremely wanting. Maybe that's my own prejudice. But it seems obvious to me that this film is shadowy, easy to read whatever you want onto it - positive or negative. That's not a strong movie, just a derivative and rather blank and underwritten one, despite its strong imagery.

If you choose to view The Proposition, take it for what it is - not a Cain and Abel story of moral depth, but rather a visual orgy of sexy landscapes and seductive violence.

*

Visit the What I Watched Last Night catalog.



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Posted on August 22, 2007


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