“This is going to be a violent film,” said Nick Cave of his debut screenplay in 2006. “You are to expect some violence.” And grubby Australian western The Proposition didn’t disappoint. In one scene, a young lad’s already shredded back is lashed 60 more times after he’s fallen unconscious in the town square.
Directed by John Hillcoat (The Road), the film – which was released in the UK 15 years ago this week – follows a trio of bushranger brothers who’ve been terrorising a turn-of-the-century outback town. But when the younger two siblings are rounded up by hard-nosed Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), Charlie (Guy Pearce) is given a choice: hunt down and kill older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) or watch the younger one executed.
It’s an unflinching yet poetic ode to the genre, but one that makes plenty of sense when you consider whose mind it came from. Bad Seeds frontman Cave was originally only supposed to compose the film’s score, but when the script didn’t strike the right chord with Hillcoat, he invited his longtime pal to take over writing duties as well. Three weeks later, The Proposition was finished and the pair were handed a $2 million budget to bring their vision to the screen.
“For Johnny, Australia had its Western story as well,” Cave said at the time (via cinema.com). “It had its Wild West, and that hadn’t been exploited cinematically at all. There weren’t genre films being made about that period unless they were biopics of famous Australians – the Ned Kelly story, the Mad Dog Morgan story or whatever. So this was a rich mine to plumb.”
As a calling card for the Aussie countryside, The Proposition is unbeatable. Framed against pastel skies of purple and red, Charlie’s mission moves slowly and calmly through beautiful landscapes before another act of brutal savagery breaks the silence. Occasionally, Cave’s blackly comic dialogue deflates the tension with some much-needed levity – such as the moment when Stanley’s superior Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) describes a spear-punctured corpse as resembling something close to a garden hedgehog. But mostly, this is a mirthless movie.
Cast-wise, it’s the Guy Pearce show, but hovering on the periphery is a scene-stealing turn from John Hurt’s ‘fortune hunter’ Jellon Lamb – easily among the late actor’s best performances despite his minimal screen time. “Ohhh Danny boy, the flies the flies are crawling!” he drunkenly croons in recognition of the land’s omnipresent biters. Rarely does a film capture the harshness of desert life so honestly, but during The Proposition’s 104-minute runtime you’ll almost feel the need to bat away the mozzies or wipe sweat and muck from your forehead.
Looking back at Hillcoat’s unique portrait of 19th Century Australia now, its legacy seems assured. Without it, we probably wouldn’t have the The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – an even better revisionist western headlined by Brad Pitt which arrived a year later. Handsome, lyrical shots of lone horsemen are of course present in both, but it’s the musical input from Cave and partner Warren Ellis that will connect them in the minds of fans. After hearing their contemplative ballads in The Proposition, producers of Pitt’s acclaimed 2007 film soon hired the duo to write tracks like ‘Rather Lovely Thing’ and ‘Falling’. Later, Cave would lend a (red right) hand to soundtracks The Road, Hell or High Water and Wind River – with his work on The Proposition playing its part in getting him those gigs.
Sadly, Cave didn’t take to scriptwriting as keenly as composing. During a 2014 chat with IndieWire, the now 63-year-old suggested he didn’t “really see the point” in adapting existing material for the big screen, citing the creative naiveté he brought to The Proposition (a lack of understanding “what’s not possible to film” and “what’s too expensive”) as something he’ll never enjoy again. If this was indeed the last-ever original feature script from Cave – 2012’s Lawless was inspired by author Matt Bondurant’s moonshine-peddling family members – he went out with a bang.