A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK # 6
2006, R, 104 mins Charlie Burns:
Guy Pearce / Captain Stanley: Ray Winstone / Mike Burns: Richard Wilson
/ Martha Stanley: Emily Watson / Arthur Burns: Danny Huston / Jellon Lamb: John Hurt
/ Eden Fletcher: David Wenham / Brian O'Leary: Noah Taylor
/ Jacko: David Gulpilil / Queenie: Leah Purcell / Two Bob: Tom E. Lewis
2006, R, 104 mins
Charlie Burns: Guy Pearce / Captain Stanley: Ray Winstone / Mike Burns: Richard Wilson / Martha Stanley: Emily Watson / Arthur Burns: Danny Huston / Jellon Lamb: John Hurt / Eden Fletcher: David Wenham / Brian O'Leary: Noah Taylor / Jacko: David Gulpilil / Queenie: Leah Purcell / Two Bob: Tom E. Lewis
Directed by John Hillcoat / Written by Nick Cave
I felt like going home and taking a long, hot shower after watching THE PROPOSITION. This is a dirty, grungy, murky, and dust soaked western that is vile, repugnant, oppressive, violent and viscous.
I say all of this with the utmost respect for its incredible level of technical craft and professional polish. THE PROPOSITION reminds me of why I go to the movies, not to mention that it only serves to reinforce why the western genre remains one of the most evocative and powerful of all them all. As a piece of out-of-body escapism, this film is a blood-drenched poem that strikes a level of gritty and uncompromising verisimilitude that I've rarely seen in similar films. It creates such a stark and unforgiving landscape of despair, moral decay, and physical desolation that it deserves equal praise with the works of Leone, Peckinpah, and Eastwood.
If 1992’s UNFORGIVEN – the last great western – was a descent into more melancholic and depressing western waters, then THE PROPOSITION is a full-on dive right into hell itself. I have never seen a western that has felt more real on a tangible and visceral level. This is not a John Fordian, picturesque western with beautiful vistas and stunning scenery. No, this western is irreproachably ugly and slimy. The hair on the cowboys is oily and mated, their teeth yellow and stained with months worth of plaque, and their clothes and hats seem forever covered by the soiled and polluted haze of the environment that surrounds and strangles them. The men look like they actually have traveled for miles and days without bathing. In one of the film’s most memorable shots we see the backs of two cowboys literally covered with flies while they watch a public lashing. This film is awash with dust, dirt, and flies and insects. The soundtrack supports this desolate vision. While characters speak you can hear the faint humming of flies around every corner. This is not a western that looks like it would be fun and exciting to populate.
Very few films – regardless of whether they are westerns or not – maintain such a consistent vibe of brutality and foreboding as this one does. THE PROPOSITION rightfully reveals the land as godforsaken and depraved, where the hearts of men are as haunting and despairing as the environment as well. The film’s aesthetic technique is absolutely critical to its success in immersing the viewer. The sun-drenched world that these men populate feeds their bitterness, hostility, and corruption. Friends are not aplenty, but foes are. The ethical uncertainty of the time is positively correlated with primal natured of the terrain. Not even the best westerns of Eastwood were this harsh, this cruel, and this relentlessly menacing.
I will carry the film with me for a long time, because it does such an effortless job of transporting the viewer into its chaotic and harrowing environments. The film has that same level of minute detail that floods the frame in the same way George Lucas did with his STAR WARS SAGA. I don’t think that the comparison is too far off base. THE PROPOSITION creates such a sweaty, stifling, and repugnant aura about it that its lands seem almost as foreign and alien as any of the planets in Lucas’ space fantasy. The 19th Century outback that it paints across the screen is one of the memorable places of recent film memory. It gives the sickening brutality of the plains a sort of paradoxical and ethereal beauty. It’s impossible not to be transfixed by it.
The film portrays its savagery and violence in almost epic and poetic proportions. It transpires not in the American frontier, but in the Australian version, but the two are fairly analogous and interchangeable. As the film opens Captain Morris Stanley (in one of the great performances of 2006 by the quietly powerful Ray Winstone) has come over from England to bring some order to the corruption that plagues the outback. His mantra has some nearly biblical proportions (“I will civilize these lands,” he keeps reiterating throughout the film). His first targets on his quest to purify Australian are three outlaw brothers, all of whom participated in the fierce killing and raping of an innocent band of settlers. One of the victims was a pregnant woman. These men are not bad; they are evil incarnate.
In the film’s stunning and violent opening, a shoot out ensues which culminates in Morris capturing two of the three brothers. One, Mike (Richard Wilson) is the youngest and perhaps the one that looks like he has the least amount of shelf wear. Then there is his older brother, Charlie (played with a soft spoken authority by the commanding Guy Pearce) who is severely damaged emotional goods. He’s so brooding, introverted, and sullen that you feel compelled to get a little closer just to hear him. He does not say much, but makes his few words count. His life is worthless, made even more contemptible by the world he lives in. Despite the capture of two thirds of the posse, the Captain is not happy with his catch. His real prize is the older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston, brilliantly underplaying a blood-loving sociopath).
He makes a deal, a “proposition”, to Charlie. He will keep his younger brother in a holding cell as leverage and asks Charlie to hunt down his own brother. The deal is relatively simple: if Charlie captures and kills Arthur, then Morris will spare both him and Mike. The ambiguity of this proposal is quietly deplorable and appalling. What is more barbaric – having a man kill his own brother or having a man make another man destroy his own blood? The remorselessness of all of the characters gives THE PROPOSITION most of its vile edge. You’re really never sure who to cheer for and whom to despise.
Needless to say, Charlie begrudgingly takes on the mission to exterminate his older sibling. Why does he do so? That remains somewhat as elusive as Charlie’s damaged personality itself. He does not love his older brother in the conventional sense. Perhaps he feels so isolated in the world and that killing is such an undeniable fact of life that murdering one’s own brother for you freedom seems all in a day’s work. The sentiments and underlining mood of Charlie and his mission is depressing and helps paint this western with such sad and eloquent strokes. Here’s a man that is willing to save both himself and his younger brother by killing his other one. Maybe he does this because, deep down, he’s no different than Arthur, who at one point in the film simply sums up the real identify of this film’s men. “A misanthrope is a bugger who hates every other bugger,” he explains. It’s a crude, but unmistakable, delineation. These men are not good men; they’re faithless and amoral beasts.
Perhaps even more fascinating is the handling of the Winstone character himself. Immediately, it would appear that this Captain instantly would be painted as the one-note, depraved villain of THE PROPOSITION. Certainly, any authority figure that would make someone slaughter a member of his own family has his finger off of his ethical compass. Yet, as the film progresses, the Captain moves away from being a figure to despise and more to one that commands empathy. His motives seem a bit more pure as the film progresses. He wants the lawless land to be tamed, at whatever means necessary. Yet, he still manages to stand his ground even when the easier option of appeasing others seems like the better choice.
The film even has the time to show his family life, which only further adds an interesting element to the character’s façade. He has a fairly happy marriage to his wife (played by Emily Watson) as one of those colonial women that seems to have blinders on to the real injustices of the world. She has her home all decked out with the latest Victorian trappings, has a nice little yard with a picket fence, all in an effort to keep her and her husband as far away from the harsh realities of the time. What she absolutely fails to see is that not even a dignified household can keep her family “clean”. Her penchant for going out of her way to create an environment of normalcy is kind of sad and chilling.
The Captain may initially have been served up as the bad guy, but it’s really Arthur that is the villainous scoundrel of the piece. The film has some interesting commentary on the nature of Arthur’s viciousness. Was he born the way he was or did the world he inhabits have an effect? With Darwin being clearly mentioned and referenced at one point, THE PROPOSITION makes a strong argument for nurture over nature. Yes, Arthur is a grunt of unbelievable cruelty, but it could be argued that he is an eerie reflection of the outback – untamed, ruthless, and inhospitable.
Charlie himself is an equally captivating persona. He, much like many of the film’s characters, resides in a shadowy grey area and is not a black and white good or bad guy. There is an inescapable conflict that tears away at him. Should he do the right thing and rid the world of his terrible brother or remain obedient and faithful to the notion of family trust? Guy Pearce, who has given such memorably performances in films like LA CONFIDENTIAL and one of the most inventive films of this decade in MEMENTO, again crafts a nuanced and layered character in Charlie. His performance gives THE PROPOSITION its elegiac and redolent flavor. Unlike most conventional westerns, you’re never really sure if you want him to kill his brother or not. Again, the point here is not to present the film in simplistic and broad strokes; it wants to juxtapose the ugliness of the lands with the darkness and uncertainty of the men’s souls.
THE PROPOSITION was written by Nick Cave, a musician, and was directed by John Hillcoat, a former music video director. Considering their genuine lack of big screen credits, the film is a remarkably assured piece of storytelling. They know implicitly the type of western they wanted to make and the kind they definitely did not want to make. Their vision is to present a world of endless and recurring violence and sadism where the people have very little sense of justice, the law, honour, or code of ethics. There is such a stark and gut-wrenching immediacy to the proceedings. The film is very, very violent and appropriately so. The carnage is not glorified, nor is it used to rouse the audience. This is perhaps one of the few westerns I’ve seen where you don’t want to see anyone shot or hurt because it shows the aftermath in such stomach churning detail. There is one montage that features a public lashing that’s as violent as similar moments in THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Although this scene does not go to the primeval overkill as the one in Gibson’s film, the gore in THE PROPOSITION speaks volumes. The world of the film is grim and without hope.
As a strongly Peckinpah-inspired western opus that is drenched in blood and hostility, THE PROPOSITION is a brilliantly mounted meditation on the ugliness and unglamorous face of the 19th Century frontier. With brilliantly realized performances, a perversely beautiful realization of the dirt, fly, and manure-laced landscape, and a story which highlights a bleak and decaying world view, THE PROPOSITION is one of the most gorgeously gritty and compelling westerns in years. As a ballad of loneliness, despair, menace, and complete incurable ruthlessness, the film is like a tyrannical punch to the stomach. It is equal parts harsh and lyrical, enchanting and haunting, as well as flamboyant and nihilistic. More than anything, it creates such an unforgettably realistic atmosphere where even the smallest detail is not left up to chance. In the grand tradition of THE WILD BUNCH and UNFORGIVEN, THE PROPOSITION tackles its themes of male combativeness and inhumanity with such a harsh, lyrical velocity. This is one of 2006’s most atmospheric and enthralling film going experiences.