Channeling Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and the palpable feelings emitting from a faded photograph taken in the late 19th century, Nick Cave wrote one of the year's best films with The Proposition. A dark, elegiac, gorgeous, blood soaked Western that boasts a cast of actors who'd (god bless them) be right at home in both the era they're portraying and the 1970's, this is grit (directed by John Hillcoat) most true.
Opening with a hideous outback killing at the end of the 19th century in the former penal colony (Australia), we see the lawless, murdering Burns brothers do their especially heinous deed. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, looking his hungry best) and his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by lawman Captain Stanley (the barrel chested wonder Ray Winstone) with a proposition. If Charlie turns in his older brother, Arthur (a terrifically vicious Danny Huston), Stanley will keep Mikey alive. It's Charlie's Choice with lots of beatings, shoot-outs, rotted teeth and glorious, glorious decay.
Pearce is stunning in a performance that made me recall interviwing the actor a few years ago. I wondered why he wasn't a bigger star and then, was happy he wasn't. He's too offbeat, too interesting.
An engaging man (to say the least), he was also exactly how I'd imagined (or hoped)--honest and even a touch sad. There's just something immediately poignant about the guy.
Of the two relatively unknown Australian talents to emerge from 1997's L.A. Confidential, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, it's been the lower profile Pearce who's remained the most fascinatingly enigmatic. Crowe, of course, has gotten all the glory -- sometimes at Pearce's expense. Take 2000, when Crowe appeared in the impressive, epic Gladiator and Pearce made the masterful, inventive Memento. The latter film's unique told-in-reverse structure and Pearce's magnetic performance as a shady, grieving widower plagued with short-term memory loss made it one of the most dissected, talked about and admired films of year.
But when it came awards time, Gladiator (well deserved since I love the picture) steamrolled over the field, leaving little room for Memento and Pearce. Just as L.A. Confidential barely made a dent on Oscar night, Memento failed to get an Oscar nomination for best picture -- which went, ultimately, to Gladiator -- and Pearce wasn't nominated for his performance while Crowe took the best actor Oscar. As much as I admire Gladiator and Crowe, Pearce should have been nominated. That set of circumstances, produced some clarity for Pearce.
"I used to have a lot of confusion about the Academy Awards," he said. "I had it on a pedestal. But then I always thought, it's kind of weird that amazing things didn't get through, and rather mundane or popular stuff would win. After the whole L.A. Confidential and Memento experience, I thought, well that kind of solidifies it for me. I don't really feel confused anymore. It's knocked off the pedestal now."
Pedestals hardly seem important to Pearce. The finely chiseled, handsome, reedy actor whose tattooed body was a walking puzzle in Memento, hasn't pushed for that specifically hunky Aussie superstardom a la other talents like Crowe, Heath Ledger or Hugh Jackman. Even in more mainstream fare like the disappointing The Time Machine or the solidly entertaining The Count of Monte Cristo, Pearce maintains an effortless mystery and a distinct eccentricity.
Inhabiting the more fascinating arena of leading men who double as character actors, he's particularly desirous of shedding his skin. "I read something the other day with elements that mirrored the experiences in the character in Memento, " he said, and "my immediate response was, 'Oh, I don't want to go there.' I have a real thing about people doing the same thing over and over again."
The 39-year old -- who started on the popular Aussie soap Neighbours (Crowe is another alum) -- is a positive chameleon whose characters have ranged from a drag queen in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to an earnest, ambitious policeman in L.A. Confidential and a cannibalistic Civil War general in the vastly underrated and brilliant Ravenous (seriously, you can't get me to shut up about this movie). His range is exemplary, but the friendly, forthright Pearce isn't one to boast.
Case in point: He makes sure to qualify his praise for Memento as something he'd normally have a hard time with for fear it'd sound like bragging. Giving all the credit to Memento director and co-writer Christopher Nolan, Pearce claimed it's easy to exalt the film's brilliance because "I don't feel like I had anything to do with it." He then added quickly, almost dismissively, "I mean, obviously I did have something to do with it" -- yeah...a real understatement.
In The Hard Word, Pearce added another figure to his engaging portrait gallery. Playing Dale, the oldest of three bank-robbing brothers, he's scummy and prison-tough, but also sexy, smart and surprisingly decent. Attracted to the role for its multi-layered character, Pearce also admired the film's regional Aussie cheekiness that highlights the underdog psyche and, Pearce contended, "probably originated from Australia being a convict colony." He added, "Even in dire situations Aussies are good at being a bit sarcastic."
And he also liked the chance to work from his Australian home, which he has rarely done since making an international name for himself. "I'd get up in the morning and forget to go to work," he laughed, "I'm so used to being home representing not working."
"Not working" was something that entered his mind a few years ago. Although he says acting is therapeutic for him, doubt and anxiety do creep in: "I definitely for a couple years back there was saying to myself: 'I hate this. I don't want to do this anymore. I want to work on myself to be a better person. I just want to be me.' Because, as therapeutic as it is, you're kind of perpetuating your insecurities as well. It's a tricky little double-edged sword."
Pearce confessed that his thoughts about acting are all part of his personality. "I'm quite extreme," he admitted. "If I drink, I get really drunk. I go all the way. I need to feel like I've been taken all the way in order to feel the depths of something, in order for me to actually feel. And if I don't, I just feel like a fraud."
This tendency translates into the way he makes certain career choices. As he put it, "There's always that control freak element one has, and you know in a sense it inadvertently becomes your responsibility because you're the one up on the screen and you're the one doing interviews, you know, a year later, justifying the movie!"
With that he laughs and tells a story about John Gielgud. In a perfect Gielgud, complete with dramatic pause, Pearce declares: "You can be good in a good movie. You can be good in a bad movie. You can be bad in a bad movie but never, ever be bad in a good movie."
Although you'd never get him to say it, Pearce is never anything but good. Great, really. I have never watched an even mediocre Pearce performance. He's real, he's raw, he's truly, one of the best.