The Proposition—Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Emily Watson, Richard Wilson, Danny Huston, John Hurt (2005; Dir: John Hillcoat)
This Australian western features terrific performances from Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley and Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns, a captured member of the outlaw Burns gang headed by his brother Arthur. In the 1880s, the Burns gang has long been pursued ineffectively by Captain Stanley, raiding, plundering, ravishing women and then disappearing into the outback. Finally, in the wake of the rape and murder of the Hopkins family, Stanley captures the two younger Burns brothers: middle brother Charlie and his mentally-impaired 14-year-old brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). But he really wants oldest brother Arthur, who runs the gang. Stanley gives Charlie the Proposition of the title: He’ll turn Charlie loose and give him nine days to kill brother Arthur. If he doesn’t do that within the nine days, Stanley will hang brother Mikey on Christmas Day. Charlie has to choose which brother will live–the sweeter and not-responsible-for-his-actions Mikey, or the intelligent and charismatic but violent, nasty and wild Arthur. And he will be the instrument of the death of whichever dies.
Pearce heads into the outback, not sure what he’ll do or how he’ll do it. Meanwhile, Stanley is overseen by government bureaucrat Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) and deals with the fragility of his cultured wife Martha (Emily Watson) in this rough setting. The more we see of the Burns gang, in flashbacks and in current action, the more we realize what a horrible bad guy Arthur is, and our sympathies start shifting around. Maybe Arthur could somehow get the government bureaucrat, and then Stanley could get him? But it doesn’t work out that way. Arthur and what’s left of the gang continue their furious, and almost mindlessly violent, depredations.
Charlie encounters possibly-mad bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt). He is captured and wounded by aborigines, but is rescued by Arthur and the gang. As he recuperates from his wounds he has to come to terms with how he’ll react to Stanley’s Proposition. In the end, the Burns gang comes to Stanley (violently–they do everything violently), and Charlie is appalled by it all.
By hearing the premise, you’d think that Stanley is a monster and Pearce not much better, but they turn out to be the most sympathetic characters in the film. There is marvelous cinematography by Benoit Delhomme and excellent use of the bleak Australian outback landscape, which becomes one of the characters. The loathsome government bureaucrat is well-played by David Wenham. You feel it when Winstone’s plot breaks apart. Winstone and Pearce are excellent in as Capt. Stanley and Charlie Burns. The production design is very good, too. The effective music was composed and performed by musician Nick Cave (who also wrote the script) and violinist Warren Ellis.
The film is not without its weaknesses; the pacing, for example, is too slow. It has some of the weaknesses of spaghetti westerns, i.e., lingering tight close-ups on faces, flies and dust that don’t advance plot or character understanding much; and there are strange and loathsome soldiers/police/townspeople without giving us much understanding of them. Emily Watson’s character (the cultured wife of Captain Stanley) is a little spooky, although she’s written that way. That is, Watson is a good actress and the weakness is in the writing and direction. It makes her too much just a symbol. There is poor linking of motivation with the actions of Arthur Burns (Danny Huston, son of director/actor John Huston and grandson of actor Walter Huston). Is he just a psychopathic monster, despite his obvious intelligence and literary flair? He’s interesting in a way, but just too unintelligible. There is too much dust and not enough exposition, perhaps. Too much strong language. The biggest problem: Over-the-top graphic violence. It makes Arthur Burns seem like Freddy Kruger. It is rated R for the violence and language.
Brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Arthur (Danny Huston) at the end.
There are echoes of Sam Peckinpah in the graphic violence, and of Sergio Leone in some of the ways the film was shot. Roger Ebert gave it 4 out of a possible 4 stars, describing the film as a “A movie you cannot turn away from; it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from.” Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly called it “A pitiless yet elegiac Australian Western as caked with beauty as it is with blood.”