Director: John Hillcoat
Screenplay/Music: Nick Cave
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I am not going to mince words. I am absolutely dumbfounded by the hyperinflated 86% positive rating the Rotten Tomatoes critics have given this film. It’s hard to know what The Proposition brings to the boilerplate Western tale it tells besides the novelty of the setting—1880s Australia. The only way I can account for the gushing praise it has received is its slow-motion violence that provides a pornographic thrill (even as it is unbelievably shy about sex), its Out of Africa school of gorgeous landscape cinematography, and the hero worship its screenwriter, Nick Cave, seems to inspire among star whores. I’m not immune to these seductions (except for the Nick Cave connection—I know nothing much about music), but I’m not dumb enough to be blinded by them. The Proposition is a beautiful, but nonetheless, cliché-ridden American Western rip-off that revels in its ultraviolence and slights native Australians and Aboriginals in playing out an English-Irish blood feud on the new Auld Sod.
The movie lets us know exactly what it’s about in the opening scene—several people inside a metal shack are being sprayed with bullets from outside, holes ripping through the walls, metal pinging sounds resonating from the richocets, people lying dead or dancing with fear to avoid their seemingly inevitable fate. Somewhat miraculously, the objects for which these bullets were intended—Irish expat Charles Burns (Guy Pearce) and his simpleton younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson)—escape death. They do not, however, escape capture by the English constable of the fictional Queensland town of Banyon, Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). It seems eldest brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) led a heinous raid on the Hopkins family, raping the pregnant Mrs. Hopkins and slaughtering the entire clan. It is never made clear, but it appears Captain Stanley was brought in to replace Hopkins as the chief constable. His beloved wife Martha was a good friend of Mrs. Hopkins, so Stanley is hellbent on bringing the Burnses to justice. “I will civilize this land,” is his determined motto.
Stanley knows the town would be happy swinging any of the Burnses they’ve got lying around, but he is sure that without Arthur, nothing will change. He hits upon The Proposition: Charlie has until Christmas Day, nine days away, to kill Arthur and bring his body in. If he fails, Mikey will hang. So the hysterical Mikey is flung into the Banyon lock-up, with foamy-mouthed Aussie guards doing their best to keep him pissing himself for the duration of his stay, while Charlie is set free to hunt down Arthur.
The remainder of the film can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether Australia is a place of beauty people don’t seem to appreciate or a hellhole that drives its residents mad. Teeming with flies that cinematographer Benoît Delhomme takes pains to show coating the backs of anyone who stays outdoors for more than a few minutes and rimming Charlie’s mouth in his sleep, this common Australian pest vanishes as the film picks up steam. Perhaps the actors objected to the sugar water plastered all over them to create this effect—or perhaps we were just being treated to a feature film version of “Fear Factor.” Aboriginals, treated with the same condescension and third-banana status in this film as Native Americans are in American Westerns, are shown savagely spearing white men, being slaughtered by them (one’s head is exploded with a Winchester in a slow-motion stomach turner), or riding alongside the English colonists like Tonto to betray their own kind. No noble savages here, but also none of their appreciation for the land.
We get poetry from Arthur as he views a spectacular sunset, but he’s a mad dingo leading a bloodthirsty gang. Another poet of the outback, Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), an English bounty hunter who hates the Irish, belies his gentle surname. Even the refined Mrs. Stanley, with her English rose garden rising from Queensland clay and her carefully transported belongings recreating an English home in the bush, is the first in line when a town leader demands that Mikey receive 100 lashes when the town learns about The Proposition Stanley made. “She was with child,” Martha justifies to her husband, who, after taking a stand to defend his prisoner, instantly gives Mikey up to the mob. The residents of Banyon are shown to be a small-minded, revenge-seeking lot who turn blankly from the whipping when blood is wrung from the whip, their lust slaked.
One feels for Captain Stanley, portrayed by the superb Ray Winstone as a tired, sad-looking man who is overwhelmed by the enormity of his task. He’s not really a very upstanding fellow, though. To keep his men from hunting down Charlie and ruining his plan, he sends them instead to hunt Aboriginals. He pistol-whips Mikey. He shoots the Burns’ homestead full of holes. He crumbles at the turn of his wife’s little finger. When the final showdown between him and Arthur Burns takes place—predictably on Christmas Day, just after Martha has said “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful”—we’ve got the Stanleys to root for, but it’s a bit half-hearted. Emily Watson, absent from screens lately, seems repressed and enigmatic as Martha—not her best turn.
Guy Pearce gives perhaps the best performance in the film. He conveys concern for Mikey and fear mixed with familial obedience for Arthur to telegraph the dilemma his character is in. Later, his loathing for Arthur’s crimes bubbles to the surface in determined outrage. Danny Huston, an actor I admire quite a bit, plays a coldly rational madman who puts family above everything—he’s Michael Corleone with a gentle brogue. Most of the supporting cast turn in versions of Huston’s Arthur, creating a very nasty, one-note film.
If you choose to view The Proposition, take it for what it is—not the “thought-provoking” masterwork some people seem to have assigned it, but an old-fashioned Western that gives us what most Westerns do—a voyeuristic orgy of violence. l