The Proposition, director John Hillcoat's solemn and violently unsentimental Australian western, has its fair share of stars in the cast.
Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, a member of a murderously brutal Outback gang captured alive by Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) in hopes he'll find and kill the gang's leader, his brother Arthur (Danny Huston). If Charlie does that — the proposition of the film's title — Stanley will spare the life of Mike Burns, his younger brother. Meanwhile, the captain's delicate wife (Emily Watson) is having trouble adapting to the dusty, grimy, quasi-civilized life of the hard men in Australia's harsh, under-populated interior.
But the most interesting of the film's stars is its screenwriter — the darkly romantic balladeer and frenetic rocker Nick Cave, himself an Australian. Known for melodic and/or rocking songs that mix despair and pain with love and desire and that build from a seductive whisper to a violent yelp, Cave started as a punk with the Birthday Party and then developed a tender, literary side with the Bad Seeds.
Along the way, he has battled heroin addiction and never completely forgotten the therapeutic value of an occasional extended vocal squawk or deep-blues moan. But he has also tried to write lyrics — and now screenplays — that demand to be discussed as serious art. And he has consistently stayed true to a fascination with, as press notes for The Proposition describe it, "the language of violence." Cave earlier appeared in and worked on the score of Hillcoat's Australian prison drama, Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead.
Meeting at a hotel suite during the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where The Proposition was screening, the 48-year-old Cave is soft-spoken and circumspect about his fascination with violence. He's tall and gaunt with stovepipe-narrow legs and black hair that is thick and combed back. His goatee contrasts with his dark eyebrows, and he wears a black suit. He also paces about an open-air atrium outside his room while on a cell phone before his interview starts.
"I am interested in violence, because it sits so strangely in songwriting," Cave explains. "There are certain lines in old murder ballads that describe a particular detail of some kind of horrific act and it just really pulls you into the song. I was always interested on an academic level how violence can do that within music, which is essentially a cerebral and beautiful form. It feels like it sits strangely, that language of violence.
"Of course, in the cinema it doesn't. It's par for the course, or at least it can be. But it was very important in The Proposition that the violence is true to the story and to a violent time. I think it's a very realistic story. And the way John has filmed the violence is realistic and brutal. It's sharp, it's confusing and disorienting.
"I don't know if you've ever been beaten up, but it's usually pretty fast and you don't know what's going on. Suddenly you're left on the ground. It's not ritualistic and balletic, and you don't fall dramatically (in) slow motion to the floor. You're just sort of punched in the face and find yourself on the ground and that's that.
"What I really tried to do in writing the script was to look at the thing musically. It's actually a very melancholy, quiet kind of film. It's just punctuated by sudden bursts of extreme violence. In my opinion, there's absolutely no celebration or glorification of violence in the film."
Australia's history is a bloody one. The British settlers killed indigenous peoples as they explored the remote and rugged areas of the large island. And the men produced a super-macho culture that has been grotesquely parodied in films like Crocodile Dundee or in Outback Steakhouse commercials. Cave was determined to capture the Australia he knows.
"It was written really as a reflection of the landscape," he says. "Both me and Johnny sat down and thought about what we feel about the landscape. There's a strange beauty to it, but also it's cruel and melancholy and very dangerous."
Cave acknowledges his nation's history played a role in influencing his creative aesthetic, which can be morbid and morose. "I'm Australian and I grew up in Kelly country — Ned Kelly — so I'm aware of those stories," he says. (Ned Kelly was a famous outlaw in Australia.)
But he also credits another source — the Canadian singer/songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen. In fact, Cave performs in a film coming out this summer called Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. It contains portions of an Australian tribute concert for Cohen.
"There was that album of his, Songs of Love of Hate, and in a small town like Wangaratta (where Cave grew up), when someone finds this record and you play it, it's like something that's been created on the moon, emotionally," Cave says. "The thing with Leonard Cohen was he really seemed to be the first person to approach a song really poetically and spend time. There's a real slowness to the way he works and it takes a long time for his songs to form. They're really high art."
Cave hopes to soon start writing songs for a new album. Meanwhile, he's already written another screenplay for Hillcoat.
"It's an English seaside comic drama. It's a weepy," he says with a laugh. ©