Directed by John Hillcoat
Set in the 1880s Australian outback, The Proposition is a simple story brutally told.
Following the vicious murder of the Hopkins family, Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone, Cold Mountain) is beside himself. Unable to deliver the perpetrators to justice, his crusade to bring civilization to the wild, wild outback has run off course.
As fate would have it, following an intense gunfight, two of the deadly Burns brothers are captured, leaving only one still on the lam.
Unfortunately for Capt. Stanley, he's certain that the remaining brother, Arthur (Danny Huston, The Aviator), is the mastermind behind the heinous crimes against the Hopkins family.
A Deal with the Devil
In order to bring that malignant manifestation of evil to justice, the good captain strikes a bargain with Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, Memento). By Christmas Day (only 9 days away) Charlie must locate brother Arthur and kill him. Upon Charlie's return, the captain will release the youngest Burns boy, Mike (Richard Wilson, Deck Dogz), and pardon the two surviving Burns brothers.
If Charlie fails to produce Arthur's cold, dead body on time, then it's the gallows for Mikey.
Capt. Stanley has a personal incentive to see Arthur dead. His wife, Martha (Emily Watson, Wah-Wah), was best friends with Mrs. Hopkins. Adding to the misery, Mrs. Hopkins was pregnant at the time of her murder.
The good captain even has an idea of Arthur's whereabouts. He's holding fort in a savage, barren area no one would want to go to. No one except for the bounty hunters on Arthur's trail.
Make no mistake about it. The Proposition is not a giddy, silly Hollywood western like Silverado. This is an unflinching tale of madness, morality, and man's inhumanity to man. The only thing this movie shares in common with the typical American western is some splendid cinematography.
The Proposition brings with it an interesting pedigree. The screenplay was written by Australian rocker Nick Cave, best known as the moody, throaty, smoky front man for the eponymous Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This is his second cinematic venture with director John Hillcoat; the two previously collaborated on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, another grim project.
Cave is a storyteller, in song and on the screen. With The Proposition he has written a screenplay that is never less than interesting and is also frequently disturbing.
No topic is safe from Cave's crosshairs as he frankly presents violence and racism in this story rife with themes of justice, honor, and retribution.
(A curious fact about this film's production is that it was funded to some degree by the Bank of Ireland and the UK Film Council Lottery. While that in itself is not extraordinary, things get harder to jibe when considering one of the lines in the movie is a slur about how an Irishman is nothing more than a black man turned inside out.)
The Proposition is definitely not one for those sensitive of ear or eye. During Charlie's quest to bring his brother to justice, Charlie takes a spear to the chest. There's a rape, and two heads are blown off by rifle fire. That's not to mention the two soldiers who are beheaded off screen. The camera doesn't linger on the scenes of violence and those moments are presented starkly, matter-of-fact-like, rather than glorified. Nonetheless, the mind is left to process those grisly details.
Taking an interesting spin on characters Victor Hugo might appreciate, the lawman Capt. Stanley really is trying to fulfill his mission to "civilize this place."
But it's the anxious, impatient Mr. Eden Fletcher (David Wenham, Moulin Rouge!) who rules with the iron fist of an Inspector Javert. The ironically named Eden finds fault behind the humane reasoning of Capt. Stanley's plan; if you kill one brother, Eden explains, you'll need to kill them all. Otherwise the Law of Reciprocity would rule and for every one of theirs you kill, they'll kill one of yours.
To reassure the nervous community that justice will prevail, Eden overrules Capt. Stanley's refusal to whip their captive collateral, Mike. Ordered to receive 100 lashes, Mike is left barely clinging to life after "only" 39.
With all that true grit splashing across the screen, it's the sturdy cast that keeps the eyes on the action. Winstone and Pearce are particularly effective in their conflicted roles. Huston does a great job of being purely nasty. Adding marquee value to the production is the marvelous John Hurt (V for Vendetta) as a salty bounty hunter with his own tainted Irish songs to sing.
The Proposition offers a grand set up in the tradition of the best westerns, but in keeping with its own tone and pacing, the ending is far from rousing. It's a violent conclusion to a violent story, but it's a journey that at least offers things to think about on the way back home.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.