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Between rock and some hard places

Aussie musician turned screenwriter Nick Cave brings a savage artistry to both, including a new film, `The Proposition.'

April 30, 2006|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

New York — THE Australian rocker Nick Cave has a history of violence. He was once a rowdy post-punk nihilist and is now more of a gothic lounge lizard, but his songs, typically focused on treachery and revenge, have always been notable for their high body counts.

Given that his chief songwriting inspirations are the Old Testament and the bloodier back pages of American mythology, it's no surprise that for his first solo stab at writing a screenplay, Cave has tackled the most mythical -- and most American -- of genres: the western. But "The Proposition," directed by John Hillcoat and opening Friday, is also a specifically Australian movie, a hallucinatory depiction of the 19th century outback as nothing less than hell on Earth.

"The landscape was the springboard for everything," said Cave. "It's suffused with a loss and melancholy, but there's also a danger to it." This sense of paradox is at the heart of "The Proposition," which, like Cave's most effective music, is able to reconcile lyricism and savagery. The film is, on the one hand, simplicity itself -- founded on the biblical theme of brotherly betrayal and the screw-tightening logic of classical tragedy. But it also has a moral complexity familiar from the anti-westerns of Sam Peckinpah.

"What I've tried to get across is that once morality isn't a matter of choice, it's actually a luxury," Cave said. "People in an inhospitable, godless environment do what they do to survive." The film's ambivalence, he added, is true to the Australian temperament. "We have a very murky view of our history," he said. "We're proud of our mythic heroes, but we're also aware that they were kind of incompetent and subject to enormous folly. They're not American-style heroes."

Trim as ever at 48, clad in trademark dark suit and sporting an incongruously drooping mustache, Cave was speaking in his Manhattan hotel just before a trip to this year's Sundance Film Festival, where he would join Hillcoat for the U.S. premiere of "The Proposition." Friends for nearly three decades, Cave and the director have crossed paths professionally several times: Hillcoat directed a few music videos for Cave, and Cave was one of the co-writers on Hillcoat's 1988 prison drama "Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead." The idea of an Australian western was something they had discussed as far back as the early '80s.

Hillcoat, speaking by telephone recently from the remote Thai island where he was vacationing, pointed out that the first Australian feature film was in fact a western: 1906's "The Story of the Kelly Gang." Ned Kelly, the outlaw folk hero with a deathless place in the Australian imagination, has been repeatedly canonized on film, most recently in the 2004 feature "Ned Kelly," with Heath Ledger. But according to Hillcoat, those movies fostered a cultural amnesia. "These bushranger films never incorporated a wider context -- the conflicts with the landscape and the indigenous culture," he said.

The director immersed himself in period research and passed his findings to Cave. The resulting film is a deft portrait of the tribal complications that defined power relations in a lawless last frontier. British colonials (headed by Ray Winstone's police captain) and Irish outlaws (a band of brothers including Guy Pearce) are installed as antagonists, but "The Proposition" also takes care to show the aboriginal community as part of this precarious ecosystem.

"I don't know that this comes over here, but it's quite a radical view of Australian history," said Cave, referring to the depiction of the aboriginal people as more than mere victims. "My generation was taught that the aboriginals were a nonaggressive race and the whites came and they were wiped out," he said. "But what we learned was eye-opening. There was black on black violence. There was even a resistance to the whites." Hillcoat stressed the importance of facing up to the aboriginal situation -- still a national open wound -- in light of continued official reticence. "There's a history we've never come to terms with," Hillcoat said.

The film's politics -- and the outspoken views of its makers -- have ignited some controversy at home. "One criticism is, 'How dare these two people who haven't lived here a quarter of a century make this black-armband view of Australia?' " said Cave, who, like Hillcoat, now lives in the English coastal town of Brighton. But Cave maintained that an exile's perspective was crucial: "It's primarily because we don't live in Australia that we could make such a film." While Hillcoat, 44, confessed that he had "always felt not at home in Australia," Cave said living abroad has not weakened his connection to his native land. "You never feel more Australian than when you're in England," he said. "Our gestures are too big; our humor is too brash. I have an English wife and I'm reminded on a daily basis that I'm Australian."

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Splitting his time

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