Heart of Darkness doesn’t work with women. Oh sure, there are women who find the themes interesting, but the story is a very male myth. On the one hand you’ve got Colonel Kurtz, the guy who’s “Faced the Ultimate Evil”; on the other hand, Marlow, the man The Man has sent to kill Kurtz. An 800lb gorilla and a bad-ass; these are not characters whom girls take an interest in. In The Proposition it’s Danny Huston who plays the Kurtz-role. Guy Pearce is Marlow. Ray Winstone is the East India Company/The Man. It’s set in 19th century Australia instead of Africa. But the heart is the same, whether it’s the heart of the jungle or the bush.
It’s a Western. You know Westerns: black hats, white hats, six-guns at high noon. The only difference is: this Western is set in Australia, so there are Aboriginals instead of American Indians and camels hitched to the stagecoach. The proposition is: Ray Winstone will spare the life of Guy Pearce’s kid brother if Guy Pearce will agree to kill his other brother, Danny Huston. Winstone is the new sheriff in town, Pearce is an outlaw, and Huston is a warrior-poet sociopath. As you’d expect, the deal doesn’t hold. Blood is spilt like something out of the Old Testament. The barren landscape becomes a death-of-God metaphor. Cormac McCarthy readies a plagiarism suit.
If there’s a lead in The Proposition, I guess it’s Ray Winstone. Winstone doesn’t often play the lead; when he does, he plays “the heavy”. Casting him as a good guy here upsets your equilibrium for a while, so strong is the expectation that he should be the toughest man in the room. Here, it’s more like he’s a man who only looks like Ray Winstone; a milquetoast with a boxers’ physique, always frightened. The movie has fun with this paradox, showing us Winstone one way at the start, then doubling back. Fear even stops his sex life dead (and with Emily Watson as his wife, he must be terrified).
Guy Pearce looks, as ever, like he could use a good meal. He’s a handsome man, but he’s got the Christian Bale disease. I picture him living in a garret someplace: too Method to eat… some neglected model girlfriend in the corner, on the phone to Pearce’s agent, commiserating about another million-dollar payday he’s turned down. His teeth are filthy in The Proposition. That’s not something Russell Crowe would agree to these days. But Pearce enjoys himself. The muck, the blood… these are meat and potatoes to him. He doesn’t have much of a character to work with, but he acts like Charlie Burns was Shane. You scarcely notice he’s 2D next to Ray.
Danny Huston is the best reason to watch The Proposition. He’s been the best reason to watch any number of movies. Here it’s handed to him on a plate. He gets half an hour of other people talking about him for one thing (think what that did for Jaws). Once he’s on-screen, he quotes poetry and kills John Hurt. Huston is a courtly, gregarious, bookish kind of psycho, and the part needs Huston to make a meal out of a smorgasbord. He smiles the way a killer should, like an oven-door opening. And he kills right, directly; there’s never any hint of Huston holding back.
So why won’t girls like this? It’s not the blood (girls like zombie movies, I know girls who like gore). It’s the tone, all that mytho-poetic nonsense. I think you’ve gotta be a boy to be in awe of Colonel Kurtz… the private army-fantasy… Ultimate Darkness… all that crap. I know there are women in Heart of Darkness, but they’re there in a vagina dentata capacity, women as goddesses (a sure sign Joe Conrad didn’t date much). The Proposition is a good Heart of Darkness rip-off, but it can’t say much besides “Man, Danny Huston is cool”. The whole “life-as-Nietzschean-death-match”-thing is really just a metaphor for sexual frustration. These boys need girls.