Contemporary Australian Cinema:
Writer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat show that the Australian Outback of the 1880s was as fierce and evocative a setting for what we think of as a "Western" as the South Dakota Badlands. The basic ingredients of fear, courage, lawlessness, punishment and revenge combine with poetic appreciation of the land and the lit up skies of a sunset.
The proposition itself is introduced when, as a result of a gunfight, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). He seems a reasonable fellow with an edge of brutality, as the need arises. His need now for the rapists and murderers of a defenseless woman in town is so great that he offers to release Charlie if he will gun down his own brother, Arthur, who's proven his criminal brutality. No one else in town would consider letting a Burns off on a promise, but Stanley is a man who weighs relative guilt, and he's not so much letting Charlie off as letting him loose.
Why he needs Charlie to esentially do his dirty work is that Arthur is holed up in a canyon with his gang that even the natives can't approach. But his own brother can get in to put an end to the elder Burns' rampage of terror and cruelty. And Charlie is a man conflicted between love and condemnation. His brother is a vicious, immoral killer.
The relatively wise and sensible law man's decision is questioned by the imperious town boss Fletcher (David Wenham) and complicated by the appearance of his own wife, Martha (Emily Watson) in his prison at a time when his men are in the middle of goading Mikey Burns rather mercilessly in a cell. Anything she may witness and hear are details of his job he wishes to conceal from her sensitivities lest her awareness upset the peaceful enjoyment of marriage -- one which they hold up with the calm niceties and values of English refinement in their remote ranch house. The Stanley home sanctum represents a bastion of fine tenderness and propriety away from noisy brutality and the unsparing wilderness. He does not wish to have it compromised.
After Charlie is speared through the chest by a group of native warriors, he's brought back to health by brother Arthur's woman. He heals quickly enough to bring Arthur and gang back to town to effect a rescue of Mikey, not knowing that he's been lashed by those who demand more than the Captain's moderation. When the elder Burns see their injured brother, family blood boils, and the question turns to whether Charlie is going to satisfy the terms of Captain Stanley's proposition.
Guy Pearce is as appropriate to the role of a renegade with a tight spine and moral fiber as he was in the intellectually clever "Memento," the lawyer of "L.A. Confidential" and the depraved nightclub singer of "A Slipping Down Life." The high cheek bones and wiry physicality of the man serve him well as a tough hombre on a saddle and his very complete talent does the rest. As always, he's a joy to watch as he grapples with the moral ambivalence of his character.
Danny Huston, too, surprises with an almost spiritual version of a bad guy of the plains, flowing hair and beard, duster, the works. After his CIA boss of "Covert One: The Hades Factor" (a mini TV series), and his British Charges d'Affair of "The Constant Gardener," he, too, delivers a wholly transforming persona as an arch and shrewdly intelligent villain -- one whose cold analysis of men who might be enemies is scarier than his willingness to pull the trigger.
Ray Winstone, with whom we spend much time as the central icon of law and reason fending off the rage of the citizens and the thin moral fiber of his deputies is thick, slightly overexpressive, and stalwart, in a role that might well have gone to Gene Hackman in another time and place.
Emily Watson is as wild-west pulchritudinous as befits a lady in trying circumstances, and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, the treacherous bounty hunter who is after Arthur or any other Burns bro, is in the process of showing us that his dramatic spunk has increased in his mature years. Considering what he delivered in "V for Vendetta," after 126 films and a career of 40+ years -- when many an actor is happy to merely echo the highlights of their pedigree -- this guy's just starting to treat us to his spectrum of colors.
And, you just can't do an Australian Outback film without David Gumpilil.
Screenwriter Nick Cave does a few folk-style songs and co-wrote (with Warren Ellis) the nostalgic, evocative score that helps you feel the sandy reaches and turbulent disorder of a punishing frontier. All together, it's a film with a talented ensemble cast in a visceral, stinging story of frontier justice and the pursuit of it by flawed men. It may have been inspired by the American Western, but its integrity and power is all its own. Drivingly well done, mates.
The Soundtrack Album