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Newly arrived from England, lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is desperate to shield his wife (Emily Watson) from the brutalities of the 1880s Australian outback. After capturing two of three outlaw Irish brothers—Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson)—Stanley offers Charlie an impossible choice: to save his younger brother Mikey from the gallows, he must hunt down his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). A powerful, epic drama written by indie music icon Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, previous collaborators on Ghosts…of the Civil Dead.
 

 The Proposition

I love genre movies and I have always wanted to make an Australian Western. Sadly, the American Western genre is considered to be burnt-out, trapped in cinematic purgatory. In 1994, after an extensive trip encompassing four states, travelling throughout central Australia with my production designer Chris Kennedy, I became convinced that both through the mythic force of the rugged Australian landscape and the country’s unique brutal history, the legendary power of the Western genre could be reinvented in a specifically Australian context. There are the epic themes of conflict between the law & the outlaw, the oppressor & the oppressed, man & nature. The cruel reality of the Australian frontier is the story of violent conflict: white on white, white on black, black on white, and black on black. Our mission was to depict this Australia as never seen before.

Our key characters are inextricably locked into a destiny they cannot alter. The film is an elegy of violence that runs thematically through the narrative, the central characters, the climate, the visual style, the light, the colour, and the soundtrack. Violence is the core of frontiers when radically different cultures collide. Nations are built upon carnage. However, we deliberately focus upon the aftermath, upon the actual consequences of violent actions. The few incidents that do take place on screen are like in real life––abrupt, messy, and quick yet can leave wounds that take centuries to heal. For the survivors of violence they are far from being pain-free. All involved are morally compromised. There are no clear-cut heroes. The characters are not just good or bad people, they are full of ambiguities and conflicting qualities, just like real people.

The grubby ruthlessness highlighted in many of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone’s characters made their Westerns more believable, more visceral and engaging as they were potent revisions of a sanitised past. The Australian frontier was often even more extreme and dangerous than that of the American Wild West. The land was even more inhospitable and the outlawed bushrangers even more dangerous and desperate––after all there was no Mexico to flee to and virtually all bushrangers were captured or killed. The British regime was all- encompassing and was utterly ruthless when dealing with the aboriginal people.

Photographs of the time and place show us the Victorians’ stubborn refusal to yield up to the truth. They transported their Empire, their England, to the most unrelenting unsuitable terrains: the homesteads with their neat patch of green lawn and picket fence, surrounded by the vast barren desert that continually threatens to encroach. The harshness of their new environments was literally etched upon their faces, their bodies. It is this kind of detail that hopefully helps transport us back into another time and place.

There was an extreme natural beauty and harshness to both the remote locations and ferocious climate. The landscape was a central character full of innate awe and mystery, as though belonging to another world as opposed to another country. Temperatures of 50C and up, dust storms, mud baths, swarms of flies (one even had to get used to swallowing them), premonitions, and for some, even encounters with ghosts, gave us all an apt taste for the times. Through all of this though, the strangest thing for me was to discover only in post-production that both my grandfather and his father worked and lived upon the very same location as the one we filmed in.

There is an underlying cyclical structure to the drama, beginning with an event which we do not see and building to its inevitable repetition at the end, which is echoed visually in the many sunsets (blood-red explosive sunsets underlining the cycles of violence theme): the annihilation of one day in order to create another. The futility of violence should become clear in those final moments of the film; under the last sunset there is the futility of Charlie’s struggle and the inevitability of man’s.

 
 

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