The Proposition first published by EyeforFilm, 10 Mar 2006
John Hillcoat‘s brutal 1988 directorial debut,Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead, co-starring Goth/blues/ punk genius Nick Cave (who also shared credits for the screenplay and score) was then, and still remains, the grittiest, most hard-hitting prison film ever made. So expectations were raised very high when it was announced that Hillcoat and Cave were teaming up once again. Fortunately their new project, The Proposition, does not disappoint. Like a Western transposed to the outback of 1880s Australia, the film is a mythic exploration of the ever shifting frontier between savagery and civilisation in an unforgiving landscape.
After a vicious rape and murder in the small town of Banyon, local English law enforcer Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) apprehends Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), and makes an unconventional proposition: if Charlie can find and kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), a ruthless outlaw who was almost certainly behind the “outrage”, then both Charlie and Mikey can go free. Otherwise, Mikey will be hanged on Christmas Day. Forced to decide between his two brothers, Charlie reluctantly sets off after Arthur with a horse and rifle, not knowing what he will do when he finds him, nor quite expecting to run into the bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), or some unwelcoming natives along the way.
With word out that Mikey is in his custody, Stanley has headaches of his own, as he sees the terms of his original proposition begin to unravel. The men under his command start to mutiny, his superior Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) demands order, the natives grow restless at their mistreatment, the town mob bays for bloody justice and even Stanley’s innocent wife Martha (Emily Watson) demands that Mikey be punished for the rape of her friend. His promises in tatters, Stanley know that it is only a matter of time before Arthur and his gang, possibly joined by Charlie, will come visiting in search of satisfaction.
Amid the arid plains and rocky outcrops of the Australian wilderness, Hillcoat has fashioned a moral desert where endless, escalating violence lays the bloody foundations for the ills that will face a nascent country for more than a century to come. Here the European is at war against the Aborigine, the English against the Irish, man against woman, brother against brother, and, most of all, decent humanity against its own Darwinian bestiality, as different characters vie to splash their own values on the outback’s blank canvas.
Stanley wants to reconstruct for his sheltered wife a version, half-remembered and half- imagined, of England, dressing his barren environs in formal teas, rose gardens and white Christmases. In keeping with his name, Eden wishes to create order of a utopian kind, with all of the fascism that such utopias connote. Arthur, for all his psychopathic behaviour, desires simply to be left undisturbed to contemplate the beauty of the landscape, with only his loving family for company. Charlie just wants to do the right thing and to turn his back on violence forever, but is faced with a killer dilemma. Each is compromised beyond measure by both circumstance and his own nature.
Although the story that it tells is straightforward enough, Cave’s screenplay is full of rich incidents, impossible moral choices and, most of all, complex characters, brought to grimy life by the excellent ensemble cast. Huston, in particular, almost unrecognisable in his big shaggy beard and thick Irish accent, gives the performance of a lifetime, turning a cold-blooded murderer into a figure who is no less sympathetic and considerably more rounded, than those who would have him brought to justice. As this haunted poet looks out at the sunset (a spectacle which he had earlier described as “the end of all things”) and delivers the film’s (and his own) final line, it is almost as though Christmas Day has given way to the Apocalypse, with only the darkness of night to follow.
strap: Beautifully shot and enormously powerful, John Hillcoat’s Aussie oater shows the birth of a nation in uncompromisingly bleak terms.