THE PROPOSITION (BFI Blu-Ray/UHD). This Australian Western, scripted by singer Nick Cave, certainly has the virtue of authenticity: apart from its leading lady the entire cast and their surroundings look suitably filthy. The movie is closer to Peckinpah than Ford in its depiction of violence and the bestial side of human nature although director John Hillcoat also brings out the natural beauty of the Australian landscape.
Despite the virtues of unflinching realism – there’s a brillinantly acted and hard-to-watch scene in which a character receives a flogging which will kill him – Cave’s script seems undeveloped and perhaps too austere in the simplicity of the plot and its taciturn characters. It’s hard to warm to a script which has a character in 1880 quoting Dorothy Parker a decade before she was born (presumably Cave guessed, like many people, that her ‘what fresh hell is this?’ is Shakespeare). After watching one of the extras on the two-disc set we learn that Cave wrote the script in three weeks – and unfortunately it shows.
Ray Winstone is Captain Stanley, an English policeman who believes it’s his job to civilise the god forsaken country he’s ended up in. He captures two brothers from the Burns gang: Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) and makes the former an offer – if he tracks down and kills his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) then he and Mike will go free. Already we see that Stanley is a vicious brute when he violently assaults Mike and this contrasts with his almost demure behaviour when he’s with his wife played by Emily Watson. As the symbolic representation of Colonialism he’s an aggressive thug though it’s ambiguous whether his love for Watson shows that he has a shred of decency or it’s just a smothering manifestation of patriarchy.
On his travels, Pearce happens upon John Hurt
as a bounty hunter and it’s here the film comes brilliantly to life. Hurt delivers a rollicking turn as Jellon Lamb, a man whose character is as extravagant as his name. It seems believable that before hunting down criminals Lamb was a failed actor, at any rate Hurt is fantastically hammy yet he’s also the most fully realised and even human person that we see. When Pearce eventually finds Arthur he’s broodingly poetic (which is at least surprising for someone we know to be a violent rapist) but this feels more like a writer’s conceit than flesh and blood.
The Proposition has some great scenes and its story, whilst interesting, needs opening out. Had Cave taken a few months rather than weeks it could have been something quite spectacular.
THE POWER OF THE DOG (Netflix). Jane Campion’s latest is up for every conceivable award which, in a sense, is not surprising. The whole film seems to have been designed solely to persuade people they’re experiencing a great work of art whereas what’s actually unfolding on screen is a series of beautifully composed images signifying very little.
The film is an anti-Brokeback Mountain: it’s a gay Western but one sapped of any hint of vitality and certainly any entertainment value. Whereas Ang Lee’s film was a brilliant crowd-pleaser, an unabashed update of the ‘40s weepie, Power is, for the most part, a monumental bore. Benedict Cumberbatch is domineering bully with a secret, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a mummy’s boy (and also a psychopath) and the film concentrates on their will-they-won’t-they relationship.
There’s one very funny scene where we learn that Cumberbatch’s life was saved through the simple expediency of sharing a sleeping bag with another man in a storm but apart from this, and Kirsten Dunst
’s performance as the sister-in-law he’s beastly to, there’s not much of interest. There’s an evil part of me that would like to make the case for the movie being homophobic: the villain is homosexual, the homicidal psycho is effeminate and sexually ambiguous whereas the straight couple (Dunst and Jesse Plemons
) are thoroughly decent and likeable. If it were truly homophobic the movie would be despicable, but at least it probably wouldn’t be so deathly dull.
LOT IN SODOM (YouTube). Unavailable commercially, this legendary gay film can now be seen online for free. First off make sure you see the version with the Hands of Ruin soundtrack which is not only one of the finest silent scores I’ve heard, I’d say it’s one of the finest film scores period: a haunting industrial discord which thrillingly evokes the harshness and the mystery of the accompanying images. It’s an experimental work made in America in the ‘30s and its intent is now lost to history.
The opening scenes show fractured images of naked young men cavorting with each other in a joyful representation of homosexuality which is hard to read as condemnatory (though the surrounding biblical story ends in death for all the men depicted).
Perhaps the eroticism of the movie’s opening could only be sanctioned by having it as part of a biblical story. Who was the film for? To what degree did it mirror contemporary Christian homophobic readings of the story? How was it received by its initial audiences? The film’s ambiguities only add to its allure.