January 10-16, 2007

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'The Proposition'

Haunted: Guy Pearce has either gone crazy from listening to Nick Cave records or has found himself in 'The Proposition.'

Cult Leader

Filthy Things: WHY 'The Proposition' was the best cult film of 2006

By Steve Palopoli

AT THE MOVIES, dirty is the new clean. It's been that way since the mid-'90s, when David Fincher's Seven made it cool for cinema to be dank again. But modern movie grit has always seemed too slick for its own good—Hollywood's sanitized vision of the unsanitary.

Not so The Proposition. This Australian film was probably destined to be a cult film no matter what, since it was written by everyone's favorite murder balladeer Nick Cave, in his second collaboration with director John Hillcoat. (Their first film was the brutal 1988 outback prison drama Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, which covers some of the same thematic territory as The Proposition, and they plan to work together again on Death of a Ladies' Man—which is, of all things, a comedy.)

But The Proposition turned out to be more than even Cave fans could have expected. Violent but poignant, it's like an Australian version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, telling the story of tragic figures caught in the same battle between a frontier and the imperialistic force of "civilization." Interestingly, in Leone's version, the tragedy is that civilization wins, driving away the epic figures of Old West mythology as it marches through the desert. In The Proposition, the tragedy is that the frontier devours everyone—not only can it not be tamed, but it seems to chew up and spit out the British imperialists, the god-forsaken immigrants and the aboriginal people indiscriminately.

"Australia, what fresh hell is this?" asks Ray Winstone at one point, and he's not kidding.

No one will ever accuse The Proposition of being too slick. It is a truly dirty movie. Stars Guy Pearce and Winstone have never looked more scraggly and just plain gross. (And for Pearce, that's really saying something.) Even Emily Watson seems a little grotesque. Meanwhile, there seems to be a plague of flies on this particular little outpost. The washed-out backgrounds make it look as though the horizon is fading into a void of dust. There is grue everywhere, often oozing or dripping out of someone's body.

In other words, it's fair to say that this is a truly uncompromising vision of the Western. It's not doing it justice to say, as many did, that it's like Deadwood for the big screen. And it's not hard to see why it wasn't all that big of a success in theaters. But it's already developed a following that will undoubtedly grow over time.

The plot of The Proposition is ridiculously simple. A British officer played by Winstone captures outlaw Pearce and makes him an offer he can't refuse: If he doesn't bring in his older brother—a criminal so out of control that the native people believe he's turned himself into a "dog-man"—his gentler younger brother will be executed.

But what makes it rewatchable and such a great cult film, is that its themes are so mysterious. Whatever the movie's trying to say, it seems profound. The Proposition touches on obsession, family, revenge, justice, racism, sacrifice and a lot more. It gives us heroes who are villains and villains who are heroes. It gives us myth and legend from a place we've never experienced like this before. And in both form and content, it gives us true grit.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite Nick Cave song here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.

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