Dir. John Hillcoat.Aus-UK. 2005. 104mins.
An unconventionally conventional western, The Proposition re-envisions that most hoary ofgenres in the 19th-century Australian Outback and delivers an astonishing existential force.
“Different characters take turns occupying our deep desire to connect”
More remarkable, it’s the debut screenplay from musician Nick Cave, he of The Bad Seeds, who also composed much of the soundtrack. Clearly, the forms have structural similarities - we speak of a film’s tone and rhythm - but it’s rare to experience a film as a piece of music.
This is director John Hillcoat’s intention: The Proposition could well be presented as a silent film with accompanying soundtrack and sound effects.
A broad audience might be unwilling to submit to its genre subversions: even its violence is more Cronenberg than Peckinpah, fast and nasty, bloody, not balletic. But in a market saturated with zombie flicks and teen-brained blather The Proposition is without competitors.
The film grabs you by the throat with an opening reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan’s, a you-are-going-to-die perspective of being shot at. Except here the camera is within a darkened shack as bullets splinter the wooden structure, leaving holes through which lasers the dazzling sun.
There’s no other context, nothing to hold on to. The besieged attempt to defend themselves; two survivors are taken captive.
The western’s characters are so stock they might as well be bouillon cubes - add water, stir - and Cave plays to the genre’s conventions.
Charlie Burns (Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey are two-thirds of a criminal fraternity. And sheriff or marshal or deputy - or in this case captain - Stanley (Winstone), knows the missing third is ninth-tenths of the danger.
Their brother Arthur (Huston) has slaughtered a farming family, pausing only to rape the wife before slitting her throat. This monster is somewhere in the vast emptiness.
Stanley has a proposition for Charlie: bring back the head of his older brother by Christmas Day and his younger brother, whimpering beside him, will be spared the noose. Both will be pardoned.
To delineate the plot would be pointless: an elemental assignment in a God- forsaken land never ends well. Again, Cave respects the genre scripture.
What separates The Proposition from its forebears are its Australian flavours - the Royal Mailcarriage being pulled by a camel team, the horrible zillions of flies - but what elevates it is its brazen refusal to choose sides, of which there are more than two.
Are the Burns brothers the ruthless raping animals Captain Stanley makes them out to be? Can he or his men be trusted themselves, given their habit of slaughtering aboriginals whenever the chance presents itself?
When the pistol-whipping Captain Stanley returns to town, he’s revealed to be a tender husband, and just another tooth in the British Empire’s rapacious maw. There are no heroes in this world - even the noble aboriginals have turn coats among them.
This is perhaps the film’s finest achievement. It has no protagonist. Rather, different characters take turns occupying our deep desire to connect. Pearce in another western would be Clint’s high-plains drifter, and we’d learn through flashbacks the trauma that made him a silent killer.
Here, nothing is proven: we see still-images of the dead rather than flashbacks of the crime. When Charlie heads out into the desert to find his brother, he may well be asking himself the same question: did Arthur really do that?
Surefire Film Production
Jackie O Productions
UK Film Council
Pictures In Paradise
Pacific Film & Television Corp
The Film Consortium
Sony Pictures Releasing