“Australia . What fresh hell is this?” So ponders the grizzled Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone, “Sexy Beast”), a British Colonial Marshall, as he casts his gaze over the uncompromising and barren wasteland we now know as the Australian Outback. After a nasty gunfight, Stanley has managed to capture two members of the infamous Burns Gang, three brothers wanted for, among other things, the rape and massacre of an entire family. Problem is, the two Stanley has captured, the sniveling child Mikey (Richard Wilson) and the brooding Charlie (Guy Pearce, “Memento”), are not the ones he really wants. The real prize is Arthur (Danny Huston, “The Constant Gardener”), the oldest and most depraved of the three. Determined to bring law and order to the lawless, Captain Stanley makes Charlie a horrible proposition: find and kill Arthur, or Mikey will hang in nine days — Christmas Day, to be exact. Stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, Charlie sets out to find his brother, but the journey leads where neither man could have imagined.
Set in 1880’s Australia , director John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” is one of the most vicious Revisionist Westerns I’ve ever seen. It follows the dark themes of love, violence and redemption in an ugly world that we’ve seen in the westerns of Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah and even the later ones by Sergio Leone, but none of those films are as merciless and emotionally draining as Hillcoat’s. “The Proposition” is a film of unending sadness and desperation. “I will civilize this place,” pronounces Stanley with an air of defiance, to which Charlie incredulously replies, “What the fuck are you talking about, Stan?” Desperate times, desperate people and desperate actions.
The dying glimmer of hope personified by Captain Stanley, who sees himself as Australia ‘s instrument of salvation, is virtually snuffed out by the reality of the lawless wasteland. The ugliness of upholding the law in a lawless land is contrasted by Morris’s home life. Tended to by his porcelain wife Martha (Emily Watson, “Equilibrium”), the pair do their best to act the proper British couple in the tiny piece of normality they are afforded within the four walls of their home. The incongruity of the Stanleys’ little slice of heaven standing alone in a barren expanse that stretches as far as the eye can see provides the film with its only bit of levity. The interplay between Morris and Martha is handled with a level of tenderness that almost seems out of place in a film so decidedly mean, but the juxtaposition of these elements lays a sturdy foundation for “The Proposition”.
The performances are solid all around. Winstone is always reliable as a villain barely hiding a great deal of violence beneath his genial faÃ§ade. Here, however, he plays that character inside out, desperately trying to maintain his genial faÃ§ade against the very obvious violence around him. Watson is excellent as his foil. A proper Victorian woman, she bravely soldiers alongside her man knowing full well that she is totally unprepared to face the harsh realities of her adopted home.
Pearce continues to impress with his portrayal of brooding and conflicted characters. Pearce’s Charlie is a man who has been thoroughly defeated by life and is sustained solely by love for his younger brother and hatred of everything else. He is essentially the resolution of Pearce’s character progression from “LA Confidential” and “Memento.” As the demented Arthur, Huston gives a performance of uncommonly structured chaos. Arthur is the lowest kind of human, willing and able to debase those around him in the worst ways for the sheer thrill of it. Yet there is a sort of nobility to his ‘freedom at any cost’ attitude that peeks through his blood-crusted veneer. It is the way Huston brings out this quality in Arthur that makes the difficulty of Charlie’s task apparent to the audience and even manages to coax a sliver of sympathy.
The Australian Outback is a character with its own story to tell. There are few places on this earth as brutal and inhospitable, and every Australian film I’ve seen treats it as a place to be feared, yet one that hides great beauty within. The Aborigines who somehow manage to live there treat it as a living thing; one not to be trifled with. This stands in stark contrast to the White settlers who take it upon themselves, with great futility, to conquer it. These ideas are reflected in a brilliant scene between Captain Stanley and his Aborigine house servant. In the end, those that are not destroyed by the Outback are warped by it into something worse than human. The land is the great equalizer, where good and evil are as fickle as the dusty winds that blow across it.
Destruction and violence overwhelms “The Proposition”. They are such pervasive elements that they nearly block out everything else. The physical brutality on display, including the worst scourging this side of “The Passion of the Christ,” is hard to take in many instances, and is exceeded only by the emotional brutality. The sheer heartlessness of the characters is astonishing, yet is wholly believable given the time and place they live. But while the themes explored are intriguing, there isn’t the expected depth. The characters are set at the beginning of the film, and none have changed at the end.
“The Proposition” is as cruel a film as you are likely to come across, but it is also a compelling one. As revolting as the characters and their actions are on screen, you can’t take your eyes away from it. The film’s power is its steadfast moral ambiguity. Where do the lines between justice, revenge and survival blur? The film leaves it to the viewer to decide, which makes it all the more frightening.
John Hillcoat (director) / Nick Cave (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Budge …. Samuel Stote
Guy Pearce …. Charlie Burns
Emily Watson …. Martha Stanley
Ray Winstone …. Captain Stanley
David Wenham …. Eden Fletcher
John Hurt …. Jellon Lamb
Richard Wilson …. Mike Burns