It’s not often that you get a western these days. It’s even less often that you get an Australian western.
Rarer still is the attraction of an Australian western written by cult Aussie singer Nick Cave, erstwhile lead crooner in The Birthday Party and now best known as the deep-voiced head of slightly weird music troupe The Bad Seeds.
Set as it is in 1880s Australia, as that vast island was just beginning to grow some kind of civilisation out of its penal colony status, this is a perfect yet original setting for an old-school western. The lawlessness of the Outback is an ideal substitute for the Wild West of so many countless predecessors.
Chuck into the mix a cast featuring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and John Hurt, at the very least you’re going to end up with an interesting curiosity that would be well worth a look for novelty value alone. As it is, the final result is a very welcome surprise indeed.
Ignoring the foul-mouthed TV antics of Deadwood, yet to make it on to terrestrial TV in the UK, the western has been much maligned over the past couple of decades. With the advent of Star Wars and special effects, old-style gunslingers out on the open plain seem to have lost their appeal, even as many of the themes spiralled out into the expanses of the universe.
The recent Joss Weedon flick Serendipity was, after all, a western in everything but setting – and it even was in setting in a few scenes, as the rag-tag crew got into scrapes on a desert world.
But in terms of proper westerns, with the rare exception of the likes of Clint Eastwood’s superb Unforgiven, released 13 years ago now, there have been but few since the heyday of the likes of John Ford and Sergio Leone.
This is very much a western of the Leone school – bleak, philosophical, and beautifully shot. Much as with Leone’s best work, the central theme is of one man and his conscience, as captured gunslinger Guy Pearce is forced to decide which of his fellow outlaw brothers he should betray in the wake of a brutal killing and his subsequent capture by Winstone’s gruff yet sensitive Sheriff figure, Captain Stanley.
The stark, twisted harshness of the Austalian bush is a superb setting for such a tale, recalling at once both the sandy wastes of Leone’s spaghetti westerns and the surging majesty of Ford’s favourite locations around the iconic Monument Valley. The landscape here is as much of a character as any of the actors, and it does its job superbly.
The end result is every bit as surprising and satisfying as A Fistful of Dollars must have been when it first shook the western genre to its very roots and made a superstar of Clint Eastwood.
Guy Pearce returns to his top form of La Confidential and Memento, while Ray Winstone puts in one of the best performances of his career around Cave’s surprising and deep script. Chuck in close yet epic feel of a Once Upon a Time in the West, and this makes a very good proposition indeed. A welcome return of a favourite genre, pulled off with aplomb.