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An outlaw is given nine days to find and kill his older brother. If he fails his younger brother will hang.
This remarkable film is set in the Outback, Australia, in the 1880’s. I don’t think its coincidence that the British Empire reached it’s zenith at this precise moment. The author had this in mind: civilization extending its reach until it runs up against the dark wilderness. The darkness in this case is Arthur Burns (an utterly convincing Danny Huston). “Arthur Burns is a monster, an abomination”. He and his gang have just butchered a ranch family; not in the clean-cut fashion of the abattoir – they fancy rape and torture among other niceties. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is determined to civilize this land, and to kill Burns. To do it he’s willing to get creative. He captures Charlie (Pearce) and Mike Burns (Richard Wilson) and offers Charlie a deal. Charlie no longer rides with Arthur but the Captain doesn’t care. Kill Arthur, he tells him, before Christmas and his little brother is spared, otherwise he hangs -- he has nine days.
Charlie sets off on horseback -- the captain returns with his prisoner to town. The town is a squalid patch of shacks burning in the sun, more a home to flies than people. Winstone’s captain has the air of a man at the end of his wits. His job is killing him, his men are mutinous; in order to “civilize this land” he is prepared to roll in the mud with the worst. But he labours with a conscience – he has a wife, Martha (Emily Watson). He has built her a little English house in the barrens. She serves him tea and gentility and the balm of her company. They have an aboriginal servant who leaves his shoes at the gate every night.
Meanwhile Charlie encounters a bounty hunter (the wonderful John Hurt). The bounty hunter – a mad, drunken, philosophical type, lies in wait for Arthur – Charlie knocks him cold and rides into the hills. He is speared through the shoulder by a native before Arthur saves him by blowing the man’s head off. Charlie wakes in Arthur’s camp. They are a gang of four – a woman, a native, a ruthless side-kick who’s singing ‘could shame the nightingales’ – a family, as Arthur puts it. They treat his wound and catch up with news and come evening Charlie sits with Arthur on a cliff and watches the sunset. Arthur has the soul of a poet and the scruples of a scorpion. Charlie has the chance to push him in a chasm – but he passes. (For Charlie is the captain’s counterpart: he has a conscience. These two men have more in common than they do with their own kin – knowledge of the world at its worst and a refusal to let the letter of the law trample morality.)
As much as he might desire it – for the Good and for Mike -- Charlie can’t kill his brother. In town the local magistrate (David Wenham), unaware of the captain’s deal, orders young Burns flogged. The captain refuses. The town rallies against him and he threatens to shoot anyone who touches Burns. Then his wife Martha joins the chorus – the murdered woman was with child – and so the captain relents. Mike Burns who is no more than a harmless simpleton is whipped nearly to death. The captain finally halts the action -- against orders. In the hills Charlie faces his own dilemma: the bounty hunter has been caught and is suffering a hideous death at the hands of Arthur. Charlie raises his pistol in disgust. “Why don’t you ever stop me?” says Arthur. A curious question, but the bounty hunter is dead and Mike is alive. Charlie tells Arthur about Mike’s appointment with the hangman. They ride to town. Charlie frees Mike while Arthur kills the guards, beheading them -- Mike dies from his wounds and Charlie buries him.
The final act: it is Christmas at the Stanley’s; and while the captain and his wife give thanks “for what they are about to receive” Arthur and his henchman pay a visit. But Charlie has had enough – he arrives to the party late but in time to stop it and put an end to it. Arthur’s final words to him: “What will you do now?” Caught between a violent nature and a moral conscience – it is the oldest question that modern man has yet to answer.
This is excellent scriptwriting by Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds). He also wrote the spare score for the film. (Every time the crowd hails something original in cinema -- as they did with the score for “There Will Be Blood” -- you can find a precedent somewhere – such as here). The acting ranges from good to Oscar worthy; the sere Australian landscape is hypnotic. It is violent and sad and beautiful -- my sister hated it – I saw it as one of the best films of 2005. There’s no ambivalence with this one.