Wasn't it just last week that I found myself hating on a neo-western? Left unsaid in that review was my suspicion that the death of the genre is less because it's uninteresting and only attracts weak directors, and more because in the Postmodern Age, there's no way to tell a western story without tarting it up with ironic symbolism and intertextuality and metanarrative flim-flam.

I was wrong. Sort of. Perhaps it is impossible to make an American western at this point, but I've been made to see that the genre isn't as dead as all that. The film that did it: The Proposition, an Australian western that premiered at Cannes 2005 only a couple of days before Down in the Valley, and could hardly be more different.

Simply the fact of setting the film in the Australian Outback makes a hell of a lot of difference. There have been westerns set in that country before, of course, but that doesn't make it any less exotic and alien. This is perhaps the key difference between the American West and the Outback: in this country, the West was an untamed wilderness that demanded settlement. In Australia, the wilderness was and remains untamable, and the white invaderss were considerably less able to adapt to the native lands.

The film makes the most of its setting. It is a film, at its heart, about white people being where they really shouldn't be. This is evident from the very beginning of the film, which begins with a text card suggesting that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may be offended by old photographs of now-deceased people scattered throughout the film. Whatever this warning's intent, it comes across to this white person as an admission that non-indigenous Australians can't help but muck up things they should just leave alone.

The Proposition tells a multi-pronged story, although the fact that I'm not sure how many prongs there are goes to show how nuanced the script is. Here we have Charlie Burns (an unrecognizable Guy Pearce), the middle of three brothers in a violent bush gang; Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), the closest that the unnamed frontier town has to a lawman; his wife Martha (Emily Watson), who seems completely unaware that she's not living in Victorian England; Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), Charlie's elder brother, a vicious psychopath.

It comes to pass that Stanley captures Charlie and his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) shortly after the Burns gang has committed an atrocious act of violence against the Hopkins family. But Stanley lacks the big fish, and thus proposes that if Charlie rides out to find Arthur and kill him, Stanley will allow Charlie and Mike to go free. And so Charlie rides into the outback while Stanley and his wife must deal with the fallout from this choice.

It's almost overwhelming to attempt to describe how this film works. The strange and amazing thing is that, unlike most films in which the cinematography, music, acting, etc. all work in concert to heighten the story and theme, here the screenplay is merely one more component of the whole piece. It requires its story to work, but it is not "about" the story. It is as close to a tone poem as a narrative film can come, and the effect is not to tell us about the savage depths of man absent from civilization, but simply to make that fact present all around us.

The reason why is obvious. The screenplay was written by Nick Cave (yes - it surprised me too), and he holds co-composer credit for the score (with touring partner Warren Ellis). I do not know to what degree, if any, he influenced the look of the film, but it is clear that this is a project of importance to him, and it does turn out to be very Cave-y.

The beginning third of the film is especially impressionistic, largely focusing on Charlie in the wild. Director John Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoรฎt Delhomme do what anyone would in their place, and fill the movie up with epic shots of the sun setting over the desert as a tiny speck wanders around, but as beautiful as it is, this is no mere travelogue. It's a visceral demonstration of the meaninglessness of a man in the vast nothingness of the outback, and as the film moves forward the vistas become oppressively empty and the red of the sunset starts to resemble Hell.

Thematically, the film (like all westerns) is concerned with the violence of man, and the difference between the wild and civilization. The film's violence is pervasive and graphic - the woman sitting behind me in the theater gasped in shock almost constantly. But it is also abstracted. Moreso even than in a Peckinpah film, the violence takes on the characteristics of a dream. I think of an early scene when an Aboriginal's head is shot half off with a shotgun, or later when a man is flogged and blood drips off the whip, and the images seem less gory and more hazy. It is brutal, but it is brutal poetry.

As to the relationship between (British) civilization and savagery, The Proposition takes a lot of its cues from an obvious source - John Ford's The Searchers. As they say, if you're going to rip someone off, rip off from the best. Specifically, the only vestige of civilization in the film (if we discount the town, which is a street of hollow boxes, and the "police," military thugs as venal as the gang) is the Stanley home, which Martha in her willful naรฏvete has appointed to look as much like an English country house as possible. (In one particularly memorable scene, she proudly unveils a Christmas tree, and then kind of looks at it. What good can a Christmas tree possibly do in a place like this). The image out of all the many remarkable images in the film that chiefly remains with me is the Stanley's rose garden, a small patch of fenced-off land. Frequently, we see an image of someone looking out of the front door, over the small rows of plants, to the short white picket fence at their edge, to the unending desert beyond (and it is this image that so clearly and effectively references Ford's film. It's simple and perfect in showing how meaningless "civilization" is in this world. One shot in particular remains strong in my mind: a wide shot showing the rose garden in the foreground, the desert behind, with the roses grown into the same shape as the scraggly trees of the outback. Not only is civilization pitiful, it's corruptible.

One last thing to mention: there is a scene early on in which Charlie encounters a white drifter in a shack in the middle of nowhere, played wonderfully by John Hurt. This stranger serves no real purpose in the film, other than to deliver a lenghty monologue about Darwin's new theory of evolution. How appropriate a subject, in a wilderness that makes it impossible to view men as anything but animals.

9/10