From ‘Idiot Prayer’ to ‘The Proposition’: exploring the cinematic work of Nick Cave

Including his blood-spattered screenwriting, his wonderfully understated scores and the time Cave acted opposite Brad Pitt

If 2020 were a song, what would it be? The brutish realities of this foul year would surely translate into something dark, morose and heartbreakingly sad – something, dare I say it, resembling a Nick Cave song.

I am thinking particularly of a track like his mournful ‘Girl In Amber’, which was one song Cave performed recently in his livestreamed-in-iso July concert Idiot Prayer. In a year full of terrible surprises, this was a rare example of a good one, featuring the great Australian performer crooning alone in Alexandra Palace in London.

It was beautiful, lonely and moving – with a slick sort of pathos that could only come from the 63-year-old Bad Seed, whose performance style is aging like fine wine. When the film arrives in Australian cinemas today, it will mark another addition to Cave’s detailed cinematic oeuvre spanning over 30 years.

Besides regularly appearing on soundtracks, Cave composes scores, writes screenplays and appears on screen in various contexts. There’s not enough space here to cover all of the multi-hyphenate’s contributions to cinema in detail – but even Cave devotees will have some titles to track down.

Nick Cave Idiot Prayer
Idiot Prayer. Credit: Joel Ryan

Films he wrote

For a poet who waxes endlessly about the human condition, deeply and sensitively contemplating the way people think and behave, Cave sure has an unusual gravitation towards on-screen violence. The three features he’s written or co-written (the quasi-documentary 20,000 Days On Earth notwithstanding) are hard-hitting and squeamish, with moments of lacerating confrontation.

Cave’s legacy of blood-splotched screenwriting began in the late ’80s with director John Hillcoat’s excellent prison drama Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead, which Cave co-wrote, co-scored and acts in. Inspired by a non-fiction book written by a convicted murderer, and based in a maximum security clink, it’s an intensely uncomfortable film told with brutal lyricism, oscillating between inmates reflecting via voiceover on their lives. Cave plays one of them, turning in a small but high-impact performance as a psychotic racist who paints vile pictures on the walls using his own blood.

The film marked the beginning of an ongoing collaboration with Hillcoat that led to the magnum opus of Cave’s screenwriting thus far: the 2005 neo-western The Proposition. It stars Guy Pearce as a criminal who agrees to an arrangement with the police to track down and kill his violent, sociopathic brother (Danny Huston) in exchange for the life of a gentler sibling (Richard Wilson).

Nick Cave, Kylie 20,000 Days
20,000 Days. Credit: Alamy

Dirtied up with a gritty and bloody texture, the film has shootouts, robberies and confrontations – as well as softer moments emphasising Cave’s dialogue-crafting ability. That is also on display in a less effective film, 2012’s period drama Lawless (Cave adapted it from a 2008 novel), which was also directed by Hillcoat and also stars Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf and Jason Clarke.

Released in 2014, 20,000 Days On Earth is a ‘day in the life of’ quasi-documentary that follows the singer-songwriter as he goes about his supposed daily business, which involves reflecting to a shrink and driving friends such as Kylie Minogue around. Fictitious but executed in a doco style, this derivative and prankish film contains some interesting insights into Cave’s approach to writing, but it’s a minor addition to his resume. It is deliberately unclear how much he wrote and how much was ad libbed.

Films he scored

There are various ways to interpret the effectiveness of a film score: one of them being that a good composition ought to work in harmony with other production values, sinking into an overarching mood rather than drawing attention to itself. This appears to be the philosophy that drives the construction of Cave’s understated scores, of which he has composed an impressive number, many of them with long-time collaborator Warren Ellis.

Rather than attempting the daunting task of sampling everything, I’ll instead focus on some of the work Cave himself picked to perform live with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra last year: The Road, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, West Of Memphis and Hell Or High Water.

The Guardian aptly described his score for The Road (co-composed with Ellis) as “a sparsely accomplished work”, mixing violins and piano with “occasional bursts of industrial, percussion-driven noise”. The latter arrives during moments of heightened intensity in the lives of a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who trudge across a dreary post-apocalyptic world. The score is soft, minor and unprepossessing; at times it feels so faint it is barely audible.

Cave and Ellis’ skills were put to better use in Andrew Dominik’s 2007 western The Assassination Of Jesse James…, a film as long and windy as its title suggests. Dominik establishes a pattern of increasing the sparse, reflective score’s dominance during the film’s many moments of voiceover narration (in which a man reminisces on the legend of Jesse James), then scaling it back during dialogue exchanges.

The score of Hell Or High Water, a film that uses the well-worn bank robber narrative to make post-GFC socio-economic critique, is less predictable. It rises and falls in strange and interesting crescendos, as demonstrated in the violin-heavy ‘Comancheria’. And Cave and Ellis’ score for West Of Memphis, a 2012 documentary about the famous titular trio unfairly convicted of murder, has a lovely yearning quality, retaining a soft texture even when the film hits highly dramatic moments.

Films he starred in

Cave’s on-screen performances go back to director Wim Wenders’ great 1987 German film Wings Of Desire, which has a scene in which characters attend a Nick Cave concert, featuring a bangin’ rendition of his intensely gloomy ‘From Her To Eternity’.

Several other (mostly brief) appearances are dotted across his career, including a performance opposite a pompadour-sporting Brad Pitt in the critically maligned 1991 musical comedy Johnny Suede. Cave also appeared in the quirky 1997 road movie Rhinoceros Hunting In Budapest, playing the owner of a strip club. Variety called it an “awful turn” that added to the film’s “homosexual-panic fixation”. Ouch.

Rhinoceros Hunting in Budapest
Rhinoceros Hunting In Budapest. Credit: Alamy

Cave is a musician first and foremost, of course, not an actor. So it stands to reason that his greatest on-screen appearances are in films showing this strange and interesting specimen in his natural habitat: behind a piano, crooning into a microphone.

Idiot Prayer certainly delivers that. But it’s hard to look past Andrew Dominik’s excellent performance-based 2016 documentary One More Time With Feeling, which captures the completion of Cave and the Bad Seeds’ critically acclaimed 16th album, ‘Skeleton Tree’.

Hovering around the studio, interspersed with interview footage including ruminations from Cave about the death of his 15-year-old son, it’s a beautifully conceived and sensitively drawn work. Plus: the film’s presented in stylish, smoky monochrome – which suits the man himself to a tee.

Nick Cave’s Idiot Prayer is out in cinemas on November 5.

Trending Now

Top Stories: