IMDB says... A lawman apprehends a notorious outlaw and gives him 9 days to kill his older brother, or else they'll execute his younger brother.
The 73rd Virgin says... How do you screw up an Australian western with Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone? Begin with a screenplay by a musician, Nick Cave, who also provides the soundtrack. Allow him to have an English frontier sheriff/captain - bent on civilizing Australia - suddenly channel Dorothy Parker from a century later.
..aaaaaaand there’s your movie.
There is an inventive opening with a mournful old spiritual played over smudgy old black and white photos of characters from the movie, and finally a photo of a man, woman, and baby with head wounds, with a handwritten note “Scene of the Hopkins Outrage”.
Captain Stanley (Winstone) proposes to Charlie Burns (Pearce) that in order to save his sister Mikey – sorry, I mean his pitiful simpering brother Mikey – from the hangman, Charlie must go out into the wilderness and kill his brother Arthur Burns, perpetrator of the Hopkins Outrage. We never find out if Charlie was there when the father and child were executed or when the mother was raped and killed. We just know he doesn’t ride with Arthur any more.
And Ray Winstone’s voice will be at exactly that pitch and cadence for the next hour and a half. Pearce’s voice will remain the same as well. And Richard Wilson as Mikey will blubber the same way for almost as long. I really wanted Mikey dead long before the script did.
Every now and then the Captain intones, “I will……civilize this land.”
Finally Emily Watson arrives in town. She is Captain Stanley's wife, and a friend of the murdered Hopkins woman. For his part, the Captain is either closeted, or has intimacy issues, or is impotent – or maybe just Victorian English. I didn’t care. A fine actress is reduced to, "this burden you carry...", and, "I believe in you..." Oy vey.
John Hurt appears to have been paid by the wheeze as he masticates scenery and dialog as a bounty hunter who is also after Arthur Burns. Someone read “Heart of Darkness” and never got over it.
Here screenwriter/soundtracker Nick Cave whispers over the scenery. Good idea.
Eventually Charlie finds
There are several striking scenes including one with Mikey getting whipped with a cat o' nine tales since he is the only Burns to hand when the town feels like revenge. I confess to rooting for the whip. And another where the sheriff interrogates a bunch of soft-spoken aborigines. Every now and then the filmmakers wedge in a scene about mistreatment of the aborigines but otherwise they don't earn their social justice spurs. This movie is about psycho outback outlaws - with tormented souls - and pyscho outback sheriffs - with tormented souls. You want a movie about the horrors of aboriginal treatment? Here.
Finally Captain Stanley's troops and wife discover his sleazy proposition, and the townspeople learn he could have hung Charlie, and the Burns gang comes for a visit, and there is more rape, etc.
I can handle and even celebrate movies that are joyless and hellish. But overall, this is just lifeless, and insanely overrated, even averaging 7.5 stars on IMDB. My minority opinion is that it comes close to the "worst Western ever made" because it suffers from the same blend of failed art and bad craft. And boredom - don't forget the boredom. I don’t think even my 20-year-old self sitting in the Kansas State Student Union thoughtfully stroking my undergrad beard would have thought this was any good.
Nick Cave was pretty cool in "Wings of Desire" and did the piano score for "The Road", but I don't think screenplays are where his restless muse should rest. I still think Guy Pearce is about the best actor around but you wouldn't know it by this. He really needs a good movie. Director Hillcoat and Pearce are back together for Lawless which comes out in a few days. Maybe this time...