The deeply felt, death-rattle melancholy in Nick Cave's music ("The air grows heavy. I listen to your breath/Entwined together in this culture of death") broods over to cinema, and what better genre to occasion the transition in mediums than the Western? From its roots built on brutality, the Western is by now a dead genre, though the corpse's galvanic twitches have been recently invigorated by grunginess -- vide Deadwood, or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Cave's screenplay for The Proposition seeks the majestic open spaces that Tommy Lee Jones took as reminders of a missing morality, only here the widescreen vistas suggest a stretching Hades: Ray Winstone, a blocky captain, looks out a cabin's window at the blazing Outback and intones, "Ah, Australia... What fresh hell is this?" It's the 1880s, and Guy Pearce and Richard Wilson, brothers and Irish outlaws, are his prisoners, caught in the opening deluge of bullets. Both are to be hanged, but Winstone is after the older brother, Danny Huston, so he makes Pearce a proposition to save Wilson's neck -- nine days to track down and kill Huston, the deadline falling, naturally, on Christmas. Violence reigns supreme out in the desert, skewered corpses and empty cradles in decimated homes; "civilization" is boiled down to Winstone's grotty burg, filled with so much parched-faced misery that the milky skin of his maidenly wife (Emily Watson) stands out even more perversely.
John Hurt, a virtual staple of the grunge-Western (Dead Man, Wild Bill, etc.), crawls from under a rock as "something of a fortune hunter," singing "Sonny Boy" to a choral of buzzing flies. Along the way, an aborigine spear sails into Pearce's shoulder so that he can lean back on it for an instant; a native's face is shattered by a bullet, then a cut to black and a family reunion. Huston's hidden in the mountains, a wild-dog killer, literally perhaps, since the oppressed prairie dwellers believe he can turn canine -- for the first time I believed this actor's intensity, stomping on necks and savoring sunsets ("What are night and day, the moon and the stars, without love?"), sort of a psycho-poet. Cave's own psychotic poetry courses all through The Proposition, visualized pungently by director John Hillcoat: a night sky glimpsed through jail bars, colonies of insects nesting in the backs of the townspeople's vests, a public lashing, Watson recounting her dream in a bathtub. Like the American West, the taming of the Australian Outback hinges on the repression of bestial human impulses, and Winstone's conflicted brooder carries with him the burden of colonization, just as Huston's "dog fella" has moved into some kind of tranquility with the barbaric world around them. Their clash on Christmas Day is bathed in blood, ferocious yet free of shallow misanthropy, for the one muttering the darkest poetry is not only the Nick Cave who composed Murder Ballads, but also the Nick Cave who bawled deeply for Mother and Son.
Another time, another doom. With unbalanced floods and draughts, fickle temperatures and fluctuating ocean levels, An Inconvenient Truth is even more apocalyptic than The Proposition, only here the doughy guide through earth's horrors is not Winstone wrestling with a gnarled conscience but Al Gore lecturing with a PowerPoint screen. No prairie massacres for Mr. Used to Be the Next President of the United States, though -- the event is his "slide show" presentation on the growing threat of global-warming. We have long entered the "era of consequences" of Churchill's 1936 warning, and humanity's mauling of the planet's natural resources is now boomeranging back with dividends. The catastrophic effects provide the floor show for Gore's multimedia address, assembled by Davis Guggenheim into a smoothly digestible doc: temperature graphs show zigzagging lines rocketing literally off the charts as they hit recent years, while photos reveal the extend to which the earth's ice reserve has dwindled (one such before/after instance suggests the end of the Snows of Kilimanjaro). Fuck with the eco-system, and the eco-system fucks back -- tornados and hurricanes pulverize, a glacier hunk breaks off into the increasingly warm sea, seasons shift, diseases proliferate, fauna and flora suffer. A global issue, although Gore knows his audience and caps his points with American samples, Hurricane Katrina (there are "no words to describe it," but there's always news footage) and 9/11 (the World Trade Center Memorial would be among the places submerged by the ocean's rising level).
Moviegoers scarcely dash to lectures, so the teacher brings sweets to class: a Futurama snippet here, a hydraulic-lift gag there, plus a computer-animated polar bear scrambling not to drown in the liquid surface of the ominous future. (Happy to see the Coke-pimping grizzly found another job, but I digress.) Anyway, An Inconvenient Truth's main effect is front and center -- Al Gore himself, receiving a personality transfusion before our eyes. Remember the droning, sighing blob of the 2000 elections, later glimpsed in Fahrenheit 9/11 shushing outraged black voters protesting that same Florida chicanery that cost him the Oval Office? Meet the New Gore, the immobile yet engaging speaker and the humorous professor who quotes Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair. I'm not going for cheap cynicism here: every politician needs an image, and the picture's effectiveness lies in showing how close Gore's green-missionary persona hems to his true concerns for the future of the planet. Guggenheim neatly dovetails personal details from his life (childhood in a farm, the near-fatal accident of his young son, his older sister's death from lung cancer) into the fabric of Gore's show to illustrate the origins of his own "moral imperative to make big changes." The U.S., one diagram reveals, is responsible for more than 30 percent of the world's global-warming effect (cue the "Woo-hoo" call ringing out of the White House), yet the film can end on a hopeful note since political will is one of the country's "renewable resources." Whether the "so-called skeptics" will wake up to the disasters rushing our way is up for grabs, but Gore gets admirable points for using intelligence in his arguments rather than fear. Hint-hint, voters.
Moving on from science journal to supermarket tabloid, The Break-Up is this year's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That ain't no compliment. Vince Vaughn, a sideline joker in the earlier flick, is upgraded here to central yammerer, meeting Jennifer Aniston at the Wrigley Field bleachers over baseball hot dogs; he's a blowhard prole showing Chicago to tourists, she's a tanned yuppie running an art-gallery, and both are ready to implode the relationship about five minutes in. Centerpiece lemons and dirty dishes are the catalyst, and the rom-com joke is that nobody wants to give up their apartment, so they declare domestic combat -- Vaughn gets off the video-game couch to bring a pool table into the dining room and Aniston scores the obligatory closet-thrashing sequence to Alanis Morissette. More skirmishes follow, from the living room to the bowling alley, but of course it's all for jealousy's sake, since audiences are supposed to want these feuding lovebirds to get back together. Yet no amount of smoochy-times photograph montages can quell the feeling that the two stars remain painfully wrong for each other, and that the resulting abrasion is explored not for emotional rawness but for cutesy whines by Peyton Reed, who already soiled the he said/she said romance in his deplorable Down with Love. Jon Favreau, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Judy Davis provide blessed changes in rhythm from the ear-splitting bickering of Vaughniston; the rest I leave for the Us Weekly ghouls.
Reviewed June 8, 2006.