Many of the Caucasian men and women who arrived in Australia and eventually settled there
were convicts from Great Britain and Ireland. Just as there were gangs of thieves who robbed
banks and committed other crimes in the Wild West of the United States, so to were there
roving gangs in Australia. (See NED KELLY, for example.) Rather than make a fact-based
feature film, though, screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat have framed
THE PROPOSITION as a drama about the civilization of an untamed land.
Under the credits for this terrific Australian-set western, the audience sees what appears
to be period photographs. Gradually it becomes clear that the pictures include those of a
brutal murder of a homesteading family in the Outback. These deaths are at the center of the
film, as they were perpetrated by the Burns gang, a trio of Irish brothers (portrayed by Danny
Huston, Guy Pearce, and Richard Wilson). After this opening, the audience is thrust into the
middle of a gunfight that leads to the capture of two of the Burns brothers, Charlie (Pearce) and
Mikey (Wilson) by the recently arrived British officer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone).
Stanley offers the titular proposition to Charlie: within seven days, he is to locate and murder
his older brother Arthur (Huston) or younger brother Mikey will be tortured and hanged.
In this manner, Stanley informs Charlie, he will "civilize" Australia. As if!
Arthur Burns has holed up somewhere in the Outback and it's up to his brother
to track him. The film bifurcates and shows Charlie's progress toward finding Arthur and
Stanley's tenuous hold on the "civility" he hopes to brings to the land. While Stanley makes
every effort to protect his genteel wife Martha (Emily Watson) from the horrors, she learns
of the fate of her friend (who was raped before being brutally murdered). With her fancy gowns
and somewhat ethereal manner, Martha stands out in this rustic environment. Only the
dandified Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), ostensibly Stanley's boss, seems to have an
appreciation for Martha's spirit.
Meanwhile, Charlie encounters a slightly loony bounty hunter (John Hurt) and eventually
finds Arthur after he has been attacked by Aboriginals. Now indebted to his brother, he
must decide which of his siblings to save.
Cave's screenplay is masterful in taking the trappings of the western genre and
transposing them to the Australian Outback. There's an ebb and flow to his writing and
there's also the sense that tragedy is inevitable. He also manages to work in the
deplorable treatment of the indigenous people at the hands of the more "civilized"
Hillcoat directs the action well and elicits strong performances from his cast.
Pearce is playing a variation of Eastwood's stoic Man with No Name and manages
to depict the internal struggle of a man who must decide which of his brothers to allow
to die. Winstone is superb as the British officer out to bring law and order. Contrast how
this actor subtly manages to convey his mission with the more histrionic turn offered
by Geoffrey Rush in NED KELLY. Watson glows as a resourceful woman who discovers
her mettle in the harsh environment of the Outback. Like his father, Danny Huston is
beginning to make a career portraying sinister types. He excels as the savagely vicious
Special note has to be made of the haunting score composed by Cave and Warren
Ellis and the superb cinematography of Benoit Delhomme. Indeed, Delhomme's camera
work rivals Winston Hoch's Oscar-winning work on SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949)
and practically functions as a secondary character. It is painterly work that doesn't call
attention to itself.
THE PROPOSITION probably won't appeal to everyone, but those who want to see
something special would do well to seek it out.
Rating: A -
MPAA Rating: R for strong grisly violence, and for language
Running time: 104 mins.
Viewed at Magno Review One
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.