In this Australian, post-western film, written (and scored) by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, evil seems to take many forms and shapes but it is made flesh and unanimously recognised in Arthur Burns (Huston). Outlaw and murderer, he terrorises the Australian outback along with his gang, which includes his younger brothers Charlie (Pearce) and Mikey (Wilson). After a particular heinous crime (the murder of the whole Hopkins family, after raping pregnant Mrs. Hopkins), the brothers split and, while Arthur holes up in a hideout in the hills, Charlie and Mikey are captures by Captain Stanley (Winstone) and his men as the result of a bloody shoot out. At this point take place the titular proposition: Capt. Stanley offers to set Charlie free and have the opportunity to save young Mikey from execution if he finds and kills Arthur in the next nine days, otherwise Mike will be hanged on Christmas day. The viewer then follows the unfolding of two parallel stories: Charlie’s unholy quest and Capt. Stanley struggles to keep a balance between his terrible job (“I will civilise this land!”) and his quiet life with his wife Martha (Watson), whom he tries to shelter and protect from the horrible reality they live in. Hillcoat uses very deftly extreme contrasts to drive home the harshness of British settlement days in the late nineteen century Australia, such as serving tea with proper manners and beautiful porcelain set and flogging, Martha’s impeccable attire and hairdo and the dirt, the dust and roughness of the little town, the violence and ruthlessness of the policemen and the peace and charm of Stanley’s house and garden. In a calculated choice, the audience doesn’t even see Arthur’s face before almost forty minutes into the movie, we just glimpse his back in a stunning, scenery shot. His name and deeds keep being mentioned by various characters, sometimes in whispers like he could suddenly manifest and wreck havoc, some are just hearsay or legend among the aborigines of a white man gone mad. When the viewer finally meets the man, it is almost anticlimactic, he is still, seemingly at peace, clearly intelligent, well-read and more than capable of meaningful human connections, in particular with his brother Charlie. So, one might ask: where is the blood-thirsty psychopath? The beast in human form? Well, we get to see him very soon when Arthur slowly runs a knife through Jelion Lamb’s (Hurt) heart after telling him: “this is going to hurt”. Afterwards there is a chain of events that leads to a harrowing and bloody conclusion, obviously, but no clear victory, no black and white answer, just the lingering doubt that everyone has participated in wrong-doings even if it is just by inaction: “Australia, what fresh hell is this?”. Although a disturbing tale, this film is beautifully shot and the cast gives persuasive portrayal of their characters: Huston, Pearce and Winstone, in particular, are top-notch. Daunting and haunting. —8/10
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This post is part of the The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by a terrific trio of ladies: Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin and Kristina of Speakeasy. Check out all the other posts on their blogs.