The Proposition Review
Australia, the late nineteenth century. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) has captured Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson), the two younger of the notorious Burns Brothers Gang. Stanley makes Charlie and offer: he is to hunt down and kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or else Mike will hang…
It’s not quite true that The Proposition is the first Australian western, though they’ve not exactly been thick on the ground. (You could argue that elements of the western feature in such films as Quigley Down Under and The Man from Snowy River, not to mention the various versions of the Ned Kelly story, and Ealing’s 1948 cattle-drive story The Overlanders.) What is less in doubt is that this third feature by John Hillcoat (written by his longtime collaborator Nick Cave, who also co-composed the score) is very impressive.
In The Proposition, Down Under is a harsh place, its heat and glare well captured in Benoit Delhomme’s widescreen camerawork. It’s also a brutal place. This is a violent film, but it’s not as graphic as you might have heard. Hillcoat cuts away quickly, leaving us to imagine that we’ve seen more than we have. It’s much more effective to show blood being squeezed out of the end of a whip after it’s been used to flog someone than to see the victim’s ravaged back (though we do get a quick shot of that as well). In one key later scene we stay with the non-violent but certainly threatening events in one room while being left to imagine the more overtly violent goings-on next door. Even the now-notorious exploding head is in long shot.
Despite the violent content of his three films to date, Hillcoat’s direction tends towards the minimalist in style. Scenes of action are interspersed with scenes of Stanley with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), which emphasise stillness and calm. But it’s an uneasy calm at best, as undercurrents of class-conflict (Martha seems to come from a higher social background than her husband) and of marital unhappiness – childlessness by choice – are detectable there. Martha, in Watson’s performance, is an interesting character: a combination of resourcefulness and gentility sorely tried by her environment. Also, she’s not the ass-kicking amazon that other historical dramas might have anachronistically made her. Most importantly, she and her husband are characters we care about, which makes the scenes where they come under threat the more powerful. However, the film turns on Charlie’s character, well portrayed by Guy Pearce. Danny Huston has a considerable presence as the dominating older brother, and Richard Wilson makes an impression as the more simple-minded youngest. A strong cast includes John Hurt making a meal of a two-scene role, plus smaller roles for David Wenham and Noah Taylor and Aboriginal actors David Gulpilil and Tommy Lewis.
Some people have found this film slow, but I don’t think it is really. The opening shootout shows that Hillcoat can do quick-cut action scenes if he wants to, but on the whole the film is well-paced and builds surely to a powerful climax.