Is there an official term for this genre? An Outbackian perhaps or even a Kangaroo Western… but that suggests something halfcocked and that’s one thing that can’t be said about John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s The Proposition. It’s a hell of a film that plays around with some of the mythic aspects of the traditional Western, but is more concerned with Cormac McCarthy type themes of retribution and salvation. Its overlying motif is that of family, seen here as both a blessing and a hindrance, something that makes you human but also vulnerable, a gift and a burden.
The story, penned in just three weeks by Nick Cave is as simple as a biblical narrative, but it’s an astoundingly layered screenplay centered on two men. Ray Winstone plays Captain Stanley, charged with bringing the notorious Burns gang to justice after a particularly gruesome crime. Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, the middle brother, and the film opens with his and his younger sibling’s capture. Stanley offers hope to Charlie and his brother if only he’ll ride out and kill the elder Burns brother. If he fails to do so before Christmas Day then his younger brother will be hung. It’s a loaded offer, especially as it’s slowly revealed exactly why the two younger men left the gang in the first place and of course this being Nick Cave’s world you know from the outset that this is all going to end badly.
The acting is top notch, in fact we’d go as far as saying that this is a career best for Winstone and that’s quite a thing when you look back at his work. His Captain Stanley is so British that it hurts – vowing to civilise the alien landscape while at the same time refusing to be as base or brutal as both his superiors and his subordinates. His constantly haunted expression only really softens when in the company of his wife, whom he tries to shield from the Australia that is slowly poisoning him. The fact that he has more in common with the man he has unleashed is something that dawns on him far too late. Emily Watson as his wife is perfectly cast, a woman at odds with her surroundings who can do little to help the man she loves. This is a tragedy just waiting to unfold.
Guy Pearce just keeps on getting better. Hard to think back to his time on Neighbours when looking at the cadaverous wreck of a man that is Charlie Burns. A bad man trying to do the right thing, his character is a flurry of contradictions, stoic yet damned as he tries to wrestle with the proposition knowing that one brother is innocent while another is psychotic and yet finding it no easier to accept what must be done. Towering over everyone else is Danny Huston’s Arthur Burns. More than just a man, the Aborigines think he has the power to transform into a dog and fear and respect him while the police simply fear him and with good reason. When warned that gunshots will bring the police down on him he simply pulls out a knife the size of a small child and quietly goes about his work, as happy to use the heel of his boot as a gun. His actions offer a heart of darkness to the film, a crazed yet educated killer as mesmerising as he is dangerous. He has a counterpart of sorts in John Hurt’s learned bounty hunter, Hurt here seeming to revel in the chance to play such a memorable and twisted old bastard.
It’s Nick Cave’s presence that seeps through in every scene though. Partly due to a nerve wrackingly beautiful score penned and performed with Warren Ellis (not that one), but mostly due to his screenwriting chops. This is a murder ballad given room to breathe and it’s a perfect companion piece not only to his darker lyrical moments, but also to And the Ass Saw the Angel, and his previous collaboration with Hillcoat, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. A seriously adult affair, The Proposition is a brutal piece of cinema from the powerful opening siege to the final bloody Christmas and yet it’s more about the flawed human characters and even love than it is about messy head shots and fly encrusted corpses. If it immediately enters the canon of great films right alongside Peckinpah’s efforts we wouldn’t be at all surprised.
The Proposition is playing as part of the Barbican’s Australian Film Festival and opens nationwide on March 10. The Guardian recently ran a fantastic piece on the film and in particular Nick Cave who reveals exactly why his draft of Gladiator II was rejected…