Film-Forward Review: [THE PROPOSITION]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns
Photo: Kerry Brown

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Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Produced by: Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers, Chris Brown & Jackie O'Sullivan.
Written by: Nick Cave.
Director of Photography: Benoît Delhomme.
Edited by: Jon Gregory & Ian Seymour.
Music by: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis.
Released by: First Look.
Country of Origin: Australia/UK. 104 min. Rated: R.
With: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham & Emily Watson.

This Australian Western’s weakness lies in its titular proposal. After a dizzying opening shoot-out, dead whores lie scattered about as Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) takes into custody Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his teenage brother Mike for the execution-style murder of a local family (and the rape of the pregnant mother). Stanley offers Charlie a deal: go out into the desolate outback and kill his ringleader brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), who Stanley believes is the one actually responsible for the slaughters. If Charlie agrees to the mission, both he and his slow-witted younger brother will be pardoned. If he doesn’t kill Arthur within nine days, Mike will be hanged on Christmas Day. With little prompting, Charlie agrees to the deal and is released while Mike languishes in the town’s jail.

There are a few holes here. If the arid landscape is uninhabitable, why wouldn’t Stanley expect Arthur to perish? Contradicting the film’s premise, a very much alive and drinking old coot, played by John Hurt, lives in a shack in the middle of nowhere, apparently sustained on gin. And having survived a ferocious gun battle and captured two of the culprits, Stanley is hardly weak or cowardly. His offer comes across less as a need to stop further bloodshed and more to jumpstart the plot.

Furthermore, Stanley becomes a victim out of circumstance, not moral trepidation – he’s surrounded by psychopaths (so much for ambiguity). Arthur and his gang are as dangerous as Stanley’s boss, the supercilious Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), and his officers, who are as nuts as the outlaws – maybe it’s the heat. Bloodthirsty for revenge and outraged over the proposition, Fletcher orders Mike to be flogged 100 times, an event the small town of Clarence gathers to see, setting the stage for the film’s brutal conclusion.

As Stanley's wife, Emily Watson brings a welcome calming presence. She’s Portia to her husband’s taciturn Brutus, wanting to share his burdens, but her role in the impending showdown is easily foretold. Her character is then discarded as the film ends abruptly on a sadistic note. Not only does the bloody climax occur on Christmas Day, but the Irish Arthur thrashes his English victim while singing “Rule Britannia.” By now, the irony shouldn’t be lost on anyone.

For audiences accustomed to revisionist Westerns, only the relocation to Down Under will be a novelty since the film follows Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked template. However, another Australian western, Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), while being overtly political, never loses sight of its suspenseful narrative and more subtly develops its characters. Kent Turner
May 5, 2006



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