In the old west days of the Australian Outback, the notorious Burns brothers are accused of the murder of the entire Hopkins family and the brutal rape of very pregnant Mrs. Hopkins. Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone), after a vicious shootout, captures two of the brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and 14-year old Mikey (Richard Wilson). He decides to cut a deal with Charlie: find and kill the elder brother and gang mastermind, Walter (Danny Huston), and gain amnesty and freedom for the younger Burns boys in “The Proposition.”
It always amazes me that the American old west and its counterpart, Australia’s half a world away, bears so much similarity and parallel to each other. Both were a wild and wooly world where guns, not law, ruled and the indigenous populations – Native American, here, and the aborigines, there – were all but wiped out and forced to comply with the dictates of the white interlopers. Brutality and lawlessness were de rigueur at that time, making taming the land a formidable challenge. “The Proposition” is a stylish, beautifully rendered story about that rugged era.
When Captain Stanley takes the younger Burns brothers captive, emotions run hot and high in the town near the scene of the murders and rape. The captain doesn’t give Charlie much of a choice, either. He must kill brother Walter or Mikey will hang by the neck until dead on Christmas Day, just nine days hence. Reluctantly, Charlie accepts the proposition and, alone, heads into the Outback to do his murderous deed.
But, scared-to-death Mikey, just a boy, is left in the hands of Captain Stanley, who must contend with a town that wants revenge for the Hopkins family’s untimely demise and suffering. The townsfolk gather outside the jail to mete out punishment to Mikey and the captain threatens to kill the first person that tries to take the boy. Stanley gives in to the vigilante mob when his beloved wife, Martha (Emily Watson), joins them and pleas to her husband, “What if it were me?” Mikey is sentenced to 100 lashes with a cat-o-nine-tails. The decree turns out to be so brutal that the flogging is stopped when the lad is rendered unconscious after 40 strokes and Martha faints from the cruel scene.
Meanwhile, Charlie searches for and finds Walter and the remainder of their gang and instead of killing his elder brother they join to rescue Mike. They pull off the liberation, capture Captain Stanley and Martha, and set out to exact retribution with such brutality that Charlie is profoundly affected and changed.
The Proposition” is not an easy film to watch with its unbridled violence and mayhem. It pulls no punches from its opening shootout to the sickening flogging to the ultra-violent finale. Guy Pearce is a man of few words and possesses a humanity that eludes Walter (Danny Huston in a chilling performance). Charlie’s love for and loyalty to his younger brother forces him to take the deal made by the captain, but future events keep you guessing what will happen. Shining out in the film is the pairing of Winstone and Watson as the Stanleys. The captain’s devotion to his sophisticated wife is palpable and, when she is put in danger, you feel his helplessness when he cannot stop it.
The rest of the capable cast of “The Proposition” helps fill out the background characters. Veteran thesp John Hurt gives an interesting and complex turn as hermit-outlaw Jellon Lamb who, first, befriends Charlie, then hoodwinks him. Noah Taylor is sleazily convincing as the town leader who easily orders the brutal flogging but is unwilling to raise the whip himself. Aboriginal icon David Gulpilil (who has made a long career as a strong-willed and smart native Australian) lends his skill and stature as Stanley’s intelligent and capable tracker.
The script, written by Aussie singer/song writer Nick Cave, is a straightforward story that centers on revenge and retribution. With the exception of Walter and his henchmen, the characters are not colored black and white but are shown in varying shades. Good and bad reside in all of us and it is shown well by the scribe. Helmer John Hillcoat does a solid job setting the stage for an old west saga and moves his cast with a capable hand. His effort is wonderfully complemented by the beautiful cinematography by Benoit Delhomme that uses sunrises and sunsets with good effect. Costume and production design have a genuine look.
Be prepared to see a violent and gut-wrenching western in “The Proposition.” It definitely is not a film for all tastes but should appeal to the fans of the genre. I give it a B.Laura:
The Burns brothers are bad news indeed, but Arthur (Danny Huston, "The Constant Gardener") is the baddest. After the brutal murders of his wife's best friend's family at their hands, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, "Cold Mountain," "King Arthur") cannot rest, even though he has the youngest Burns, Mike (Richard Wilson), in custody and has just nabbed Charlie (Guy Pearce, "The Time Machine," "Two Brothers"). Spurred on by his wife's all-encompassing need for justice, Stanley offers Charlie a stunner of deal in "The Proposition."
Goth rocker/screenwriter Nick Cave reteams with director John Hillcoat ("Ghosts... of the Civil Dead") to deliver a highly stylized Western as drenched in dark mood as it is in Australia's saturated sunlight. There is more textural interest in the character who wields the titular proposition than in the man who takes it, an outlaw tasked with killing his own brother, and it is unlikely that this was intended, but that said, "The Proposition" returns focus to its two brothers with a beautifully handled, quiet ending.
And make no mistake, the rest of this film isn't quiet. The film opens with a shootout highly reminiscent of the one that kicked off "The Devil's Rejects" (those Rejects took their unusual armor from Australian Ned Kelly) and features an over-the-top performance from John Hurt ("Manderlay," "V for Vendetta") as Jellon Lamb, a racist bounty hunter. Emily Watson's emotions, from her demands for the flogging of the captured Burns to her horrified reaction to its execution, are writ large as well, yet she keeps her character mired in the hothouse vapors of Martha Stanley's day. She and Winstone, whose Captain is a forward thinking man, have a heady and captivating marital relationship, his devotion to his wife sparking a chain of violence he has no desire for. These two are the heart of the film, their family dynamic more powerful than that of the Burns brothers.
The film is gloriously photographed by Benoît Delhomme ("Sade," "The Merchant of Venice"), who makes the sunburnt Outback seem positively lush. Music is scored by Cave and Bad Seed Warren Ellis and is rooted in the genre, but softened with strings.
"The Proposition" may not be remembered as a classic Western, but it is an unusual one, quiet and operatic, stark and stunningly beautiful.
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