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Proposition, The (2006)

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/03/06 02:04:28

"Bloody great western."
5 stars (Awesome)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: Just when you think the Western has been completely de-romanticized, someone goes and makes a movie that shows you that there was still, in fact, a little rose coloring left in those glasses. For "The Proposition", director John Hilcoat and writer Nick Cave manage this by packing the whole works up and shipping it to a hot, insect-ridden corner of the Australian Outback. There they drop a nasty moral dilemma on us, with the only way to the other side through a violent path of blood. It's fantastic.

The proposition of the title is a simple one - two of the three notorious Burns brothers have been captured. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), in charge of the local garrison, makes Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) a terrible offer: He will hang youngest brother Mike (Richard Wilson) in seven days unless Charlie brings back the corpse of their oldest brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). It's a terrible deal, but Charlie takes it - Mikey is a little slow and decent-hearted, and Arthur is a sociopath; if Stanley keeps his word, Charlie and Mike will go free. But a lot can happen in a week: The Burns gang is all being held responsible for the brutal slaughter of a local family, and don't take kindly to the idea of any of them getting off scott-free - even Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson) disagrees with this tactic. The natives are stirred up and ready to kill any white man. And as much as Charlie has come to hate his older brother and took Mike away from his influence, he's going to try to find a way to save both.

There's nothing glamorous or even ruggedly sexy about this place and time. It's hot, there are insects everywhere, the English and Irish don't think much of each other and their expansion is making the conflicts with the Aborigines worse. As much as Stanley is monstrous for asking Charlie to choose between the lives of two brothers, he operates with a certain amount of honor. His determination to civilize the land occasionally comes across as being megalomanic, but the facets which are noble win the audience over - he wants a place where his quiet wife who observes all the niceties can be safe and not seem like a dainty anomaly. He seems barely able to hold things together at times, but he has his eye on a better world.

Arthur Burns is his complete opposite. He's charming and articulate, handsome in a grimy way. He's a born leader who commands not just the respect, but the love of his followers. He's an alpha monster; killers like Samuel Stote (Tom Budge) just fall into line behind him. That's why Charlie and Mikey abandoning the gang is so galling, even as he admits Mikey isn't made for that kind of life; a man murders, rapes and steals as he likes can't brook defiance from his own kin.

As much as Charlie is the film's protagonist, Arthur and Stanley are probably the film's two most impressive creations - opposite forces tugging at him while still being complex individuals. Pearce, then, has to internalize both, trying to do the right thing by the brother who needs his protection while also knowing that "the right thing" isn't going to get an Irish outlaw very far. His character is determined, but it's hard for him to not be drowned out by the other actors' performances.

One of the things that sets The Proposition apart from other westerns is the level of violence. The film opens with Mike and Charlie pinned and shooting it out with the law; it's a tight, claustrophobic sequence that sets the tone but still allows us to be shocked at how graphic it is when a man has half his head blown away without warning. The explicit blood and guts, meanwhile, make the atrocities that aren't shown even more horrifying in our minds. American or Australian, the frontier is a dangerous, lawless place, where brutal choices must be made to survive. Hilcoat never lets up with this; even the scenes of beautiful unspoiled land have harsh lighting or dirty, violent men in the frame. Emily Watson, with her porcelain-white face and light-colored clothing, almost looks like someone from another movie digitally edited in amongst the unshaven crowd. Writer Nick Cave (most famous as a singer/songwriter) grinds any hope for a happy ending into the ground, though he does it without it seeming gratuitous; this is just the way it is, not a series of events devised by a cruel god or screenwriter to crush the characters' spirits.

"The Proposition" is grim, gritty, and graphic; an almost classical tragedy. Those looking for the romance of the wide-open spaces of the frontier won't find any here. If you want tension and fear and a man trying to serve two imperfect masters, though, this proposition is a good one.

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