Friday, July 21, 2006

The Proposition (2006)

The PropositionIf there was a DVD made to be watched now - for the UK, the hottest July day on record, at least since records began back in 1911, happened just a couple of days ago - it's The Proposition. On the accompanying commentary track to this DVD, released last Monday, it's revealed that many of the scenes were shot at night because the cameras wouldn't work during the heat of the day. And that heat shows. It seeps from every pore of this movie, and NOT just because the negative has been given a strong orange-yellow tint.

The film seriously under-performed at the box office, which is disappointing given the almost universal critical raves it received, and the quality that is evident on screen. For this movie to have made significantly less than 2 million dollars at the American box office is nothing short of a crime because the critics had it right - it's an absolute peach of a movie!

I guess it's not hard to see why people haven't flocked to it on commercial release. The basic story, about a 'good' brother hunting out his 'bad' brother to murder him in order to save his 'innocent' brother - is a bit of a tough sell, particularly when it's a package sold in a 'Western' format. I'm as guilty as everyone else in avoiding it at the cinema - I'm not, in general, a fan of Westerns, and this undoubtedly is a Western, albeit one set during the frontier days of Australia. Even putting the 'Western' tag aside, it's a tough, brutal, bloody film that certainly won't appeal to all tastes. Truth is, I was resigned to sitting through another 'worthy but difficult' viewing experience when I pulled apart the cellophane on this one. Thankfully there was nothing 'difficult' about watching it and it's an engrossing 99 minutes.

The truth is this is a classy, modern film that doesn't need to be approached with all the baggage that the word 'Western' usually implies, even if one of the leads IS played by Danny Huston (son of the legendary Western film director John Huston). The Proposition's director, John Hillcoat, uses all manner of visual and aural ticks to enhance and delight, so that this feels very much a movie of NOW rather than the past. Good characterisation is the secret of any really good Western that rises above the genre's stereotypes, and thankfully this one revolves around several very strong, and very individual, characters, played by the cream of the crop in the movie acting world. So even if the sight of a horse or some sand has you automatically reaching for the nearest sick bucket the cast alone should justify your sitting through this one! The good guys in this movie have a lot of bad in them, and vice-versa, so that the moral compass is never truly clear, and it makes for gripping viewing.

Where to start with the cast? Guy Pearce is one of those 'leading men' who has refused to take the easy Hollywood road to fame and fortune that his good looks (admittedly in decline over recent years - the man looks like he really needs to eat a decent meal!) should have guaranteed, and always turns in an interesting performance, with some very interesting choices of film behind him. As such he is always worth watching, even when appearing in dreck like the recent remake of The Time Machine. Given sufficiently strong material, as he is here, he positively shouts 'shoo-in for an oscar nomination', or would do if it were not for the fact that all his co-stars deliver equally strong performances, plus of course Hollywood prefers to support its own, rather some uppity foreigners from a land down under! John Hurt can often phone in his performance, and in a relatively minor role, might be expected to have done so here. Not a chance! He is mesmerising every second he's on screen and delivers one of the finest celluloid performances of his career. Ray Winstone, an actor I haven't really rated until now (I know I shouldn't pre-judge based on THAT Essex accent and 'I'm working class, me, not a poncey kind of actor' persona, but even so....). In this film he is surprisingly strong, and even manages to convince me that Emily Watson, playing the role of his prim and proper Edwardian wife, could be in love with him and have fallen for him - something I wouldn't have believed before I saw this film. I felt his 'historical lower-middle class British' accent slipped slightly into 'subtle Essex' (is there such a thing?) occasionally, but nothing that proved more than a very minor distraction on the couple of times it happened. Danny Huston turns in a mesmerising performance as the psycopathic brother who loves poetry and has a strong moral code about the meaning of family.David Wenham deserves special mention too - his clipped, prissy, measured vocal performance being even more impressive when one hears on the commentary track that all his scenes were filmed in a single day. Emily Watson doesn't have a lot of material to deal with here, but what she does have, she handles well and, in my view, she is proving to be a seriously under-rated actress who improves with each screen performance she gives. With such a high calibre cast the movie would be a 'must see', even if the script and everything else were crap - which, thankfully, they're not!

The brutality of the film has been a bone of contention for some critics, but it's justified by the story, is never gratuitous, and when it does appear only exists for the length of time it needs to in order to quickly and succinctly get the reality of how tough real life was back in those frontier days.

One would perhaps expect the music to be a bit special, given that writer Nick Cave is best known as a musician (he is most well known for his records with The Bad Seeds), but it's a long time since I saw a movie with a soundtrack so perfectly matched to its off-beat, make-the-audience-feel-ill-at-ease theme. The score alternates between being unsettling, emphasising and re-iterating the tension of every scene where it needs to, and just plain beautiful frequently. Most importantly it constantly informs and enhances what's on screen, without distracting from it, and that's what music in a movie SHOULD do. It's worth pointing out too that this is a great movie for showing off the surround sound system, with DTS and Dolby 5.1 soundtracks provided alongside the default Pro Logic one. The movie's budget may not have been large, but you'd never tell that from the soundtrack. That being said, I should perhaps point out that the opening scene, a brilliant 'grab the viewer immediately' scene that follow the gentle music and historical pictures that accompany the titles, does come across as uncannily similar to the classic Monty Python radio sketch of 'The Death of Mary Queen of Scots' if listened to in plain old stereo!

If the film does disappoint in any area, it's in the rather predictable and cliched tale it has to tell. The ending is pretty obvious from the opening set-up. One can argue, I suppose, that it's the 'telling' not the tale itself that's important, but in a movie that is so individual and so damned perfect in so many other regards, it's hard not to feel slightly let down by the predictability of the climax, which feels more like an anti-climax in many ways, no matter how perfectly it's performed. Whilst the average imdb score of 7.6 (at least at the time of my writing this) is a very good one, one suspects it's a score that might have been even higher if the scriptwriter/director had managed to surprise us at the film's climax. Nevertheless this is a minor criticism when a film as good as this is made, and on DVD it's been released in a flawless transfer, with some very decent extra's.

The extra's have, unfortunately, been mis-advertised on the packaging. The 118 minute 'Making of' actually clocks in at less than half an hour, and actually appeared on previous Tartan DVDs as a free advert for the movie around the time of theatrical release. To compensate the advertised 35 minutes of 'cast and commentary interviews' actually turns out to be an hour of cast and crew interviews followed by nearly an hour of 'behind the scenes' footage. There is a trailer, thankfully presented in full-screen rather than non-anamorphic wide-screen, and also a 'UK exclusive' interview with the director and lead actor - the exclusivity of which which seems odd given that this is a region 0 (ie region free) release. There is also a commentary: a continuous conversation between a 'determined to do the film justice' director and a 'clearly wanting to be somewhere else' screenwriter. Despite Cave's lack of enthusiasm this proves to be one of the better commentaries I've heard, in that it consists of not just 'behind the scenes' gossip and anecdotes, but real discussion about why certain editing decisions were taken, what the intention was that drove shots to be framed a certain way etc, and generally enhances the viewing experience. Certainly it's a commentary that will be of interest to any would-be film-makers.

The truth is we, or at least I, need MORE movies like this rather than the mindless 'tent pole' nonsense of movies like 'Pirates of the endless set piece action scenes with no coherent plot' that are becoming the only releases getting any media attention, even in the film magazines. So please check this one out on DVD. If you're not squeamish about 'real world' violence in the old West, then buy it, and tell your friends to buy it too! At £11.89 it's a steal!

No comments: