Directed By: John Hillcoat
Starring: Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Emily Watson
Tag line: "This land will be civilized"
Trivia: Originally, John Hillcoat approached Nick Cave about doing the soundtrack for a Western, eventually he asked if Cave would write the screenplay as well
'When?' said the moon to the stars in the sky
'Soon' said the wind that followed them all
'Who?' said the cloud that started to cry
'Me' said the rider as dry as a bone
These are the opening lines of Nick Cave’s song The Rider, which plays over the end credits of The Proposition (Cave also wrote the film’s screenplay). I love this tune; it’s on a regular rotation on my iPod (I’m guessing I listen to it 3-4 times a week), and whenever I hear it, it reminds me of this amazing 2005 western. Directed by John Hillcoat, The Proposition is a poignant, occasionally bloody tale of familial bonds put to the ultimate test.
The story is set in the Australian Outback, in the latter part of the 19th century. Following a shootout at a remote cabin (which doubles as a whorehouse), wanted outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are taken into custody. But instead of whisking them off to jail, Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a deal: if Charlie agrees to gun down his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of the infamous Burns gang and the man responsible for the recent slaughter of a frontier family (the Hopkins clan, who were neighbors of Captain Stanley’s), both he and Mikey will be pardoned and set free. Should Charlie fail to carry out this mission, the good Captain will hang Mikey by the neck on Christmas day, which is just over a week away.
As Charlie attempts to reach Arthur, all the while wrestling with the idea of killing his own brother, Captain Stanley has his hands full back in town trying to fend off the locals, including his own wife Martha (Emily Watson), who want Mikey Burns punished for his role in the recent murder of the Hopkins family (Martha was good friends with Eliza Hopkins, who was several months pregnant when the Burns gang raped and killed her). Determined to keep his side of the bargain, Capt. Stanley locks Mikey up in jail, where the townsfolk can’t get to him. But when politician Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), for whom Stanley works, orders the boy flogged in the public square, Capt. Stanley knows it might mean the end of his arrangement with Charlie Burns, who will surely come looking for revenge should the weak-willed Mikey not survive the ordeal.
'How?' said the sun that melted the ground
and 'Why?' said the river that refused to run
and 'Where?' said the thunder without a sound
'Here' said the rider and took up his gun
Both Pearce and Winstone shine as the two main protagonists, each trying to make a better life for themselves and a loved one. Disgusted by what occurred at the Hopkins homestead, Charlie took Mikey and left his brother’s gang. Now, to save Mikey, he’ll have to return and shoot Arthur dead. He knows it won’t be easy, but we get the feeling Charlie is fully prepared to do what Capt. Stanley demands (a part of him might even believe that Arthur has it coming). As for Capt. Stanley, he’s a Brit stationed in a foreign land, yet despite his feelings about Australia (“What fresh hell is this?” he asks while looking out the window), he wants to end the bloodshed, if not for himself than for his wife. Having witnessed the atrocities committed by the Burns gang, Capt. Stanley’s biggest fear is that Martha will suffer a fate similar to what happened to poor Eliza Hopkins. To prevent this, he turns his back on his duty and enters an agreement with a wanted criminal. “I will civilize this land”, he says at one point, and clearly he’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done.
The supporting cast is equally superb. Emily Watson is restrained yet effective as the wife whose husband tries to shield her from the realities of the world, and together she and Winstone share some convincingly intimate scenes. What’s more, The Proposition features two actors who first made their mark on Australian cinema in the 1970s: David Gulpilil (Walkabout) plays Jacko, a professional tracker assisting the police, and Tommy Lewis (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) is Two-Bob, perhaps the most lethal member of the Burns gang. Rising above the rest, though, are John Hurt, who plays the boisterous bounty hunter Jellon Lamb; and Danny Huston as the violent yet introspective Arthur Burns, who spends hours on end staring in wonder at the setting sun and gazing at the bright, starlit sky. Though a brutal killer (he stomps a victim to death with the heel of his boot), Arthur is also something of a poet (“Love is the key”, he tells Charlie, “Love and family. For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love, and those you love around you?”), and feels at one with the natural world.
'No' said the stars to the moon in the sky
'No' said the trees that started to moan
'No' said the dust that blinded its eyes
'Yes' said the rider as white as a bone
Along with its fascinating characters, The Proposition takes full advantage of the Australian Outback, which is every bit as untamed as some of the film’s characters. As picturesque as it is foreboding, it’s a gorgeous patch of land plagued by bugs and unpredictable weather (according to director Hillcoat, a scene in which the townsfolk’s backs are covered with flies, and another that features several lightning strikes in the distance, were not planned; he simply shot what nature was serving up at the moment). It’s the perfect setting for this sometimes vicious, yet altogether astounding motion picture. As for the film’s violence, it is, indeed, severe, but not nearly as graphic as you might expect; aside from the flogging of Mikey Burns, most of the bloodshed occurs off-screen (we’re shown only the aftermath of each event, which, to be fair, is more than enough).
'No' said the moon that rose from his sleep
'No' said the cry of the dying sun
'No' said the planet as it started to weep
'Yes' said the rider and laid down his gun
A film worthy of every superlative thrown its way, The Proposition is as hauntingly beautiful as the lyrics to Nick Cave’s song, and, in my opinion, ranks right up there with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Django Unchained as one of the finest westerns of the new millennium.