There are many movies – even really good ones – that I just don’t have time to see. After hearing that I liked Lawless, I was advised to see John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian Western (also written by Nick Cave), and I’m so glad I did.
The story is simple: Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) are captured, and the only way for Charlie to save Mike’s life is to track down and kill their older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), who really is a nasty piece of work. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who makes the deal with Charlie, has to deal with townsfolk, a politician, his own men, and even his wife who second-guess his decision to let a murderer go in hopes of catching another.
If the story is spare, everything else about the film is extremely well calibrated.
This is one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve seen in recent years (Benoît Delhomme also shot Lawless). Many of the images are unspeakably beautiful – yes, I know I’ve used beautiful twice, but it bears repeating because the care and craft displayed elevate this work to art.
It’s not just the look of the film that is so carefully, perfectly calibrated. The performances, too, are nuanced and even delicate at times, which forms the same contrast between the violent and the gentle that I noticed in Lawless both in terms of landscapes and in gender roles. Nowhere is the duality more evident visually than the contrast between the house and garden where the Captain lives with his wife and the surrounding countryside.
Normally, one might expect a feminist scholar (like me) to find that type of essentialism offensive, but there is enough depth in the way these two films are conceptualized and enough awareness about cultural patterns that actually exist that Hillcoat, Cave, and Delhomme transcend narrow stereotypes and create a sort of warts and all verisimilitude that is surprisingly unjudgmental even if it does tend to place women on a bit of a pedestal.
All of this brings me to Emily Watson, a performer I’ve long admired, who plays Martha Stanley, the Captain’s wife.
Everything about this role from the way it is written to the way it is showcased (sets, props, costumes, and the sublime cinematography) is an exquisite frame for Watson’s indelible performance, which unfolds in perfect interplay with Ray Winstone’s own equally fine performance, each scene more revealing than the next until the scene with Watson bathing in which drops of water on her bare shoulder seem better actors than some actual people cast in bigger roles in more pretentious films.
Sex roles, and certainly marriages, are complex. Winstone’s own duality as the loving husband at home and the hardass at work convey this well. So, too, are family relationships complicated when brothers hope to transcend the circumstances of their history and traditional bond.
The Proposition says a great deal about these primary relationships while also speaking to issues of colonialism and mob rule and isolation. That’s a lot to accomplish in 104 unrushed minutes, and it is accomplished with such a stunning array of visual feasts that you are well advised to partake.