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Movie Review: The Proposition

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Australian director John Hillcoat’s new film, The Proposition, erupts in a burst of bloodshed and bullets as a gang of “bushrangers” engage in a shootout with a raggedy band of policemen led by British law officer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). It’s Stanley’s job to rid the region of all good-for-naughts and he has his blazing gun-sights set on the notoriously brutal Burns brothers, who are recently most wanted for the ghastly rape and murder of a local pregnant woman.

After weathering the hail of bullets, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his fourteen-year-old brother Mikey are forced to surrender to Cpt. Stanley, who ultimately offers Charlie an intriguing proposition: if Charlie finds and kills his savage and elusive older brother, and leader of the Burns Gang, Arthur (Danny Huston) a pardon will be given to Charlie and Mikey. However, if Charlie fails to kill Arthur, on Christmas morning Mikey will be removed from the jail, ensuring that on that day – much to the delight of locals hungry for revenge – more than just mere stockings will be hung.

That’s the basic setup for The Proposition – a film that is fueled more by brutal realism than nostalgic romanticism, and is simply the best Western to come down the pike in many a moon.

Director John Hillcoat has fashioned a Western that, while specific to the Australian Outback of the 1880s in which it is set, is also rooted in the Western traditions which many moviegoers, and you can count me among them, are yearning to see stirring up dust on the big screen once again. The Proposition is not merely a retread however. The film scripted by singer/songwriter Nick Cave (in a purported three weeks no less!) is an unabashed throwback to classic Western archetypes and themes, but the material has enough imagination and originality that it never feels tedious, or simply redundant. Without giving away details which might compromise the film, suffice it to say, at times the story also seems to use familiar setups as a way of playing with genre stereotypes and audience expectations, which it then slightly subverts, to somewhat surprising, if not altogether “rousing” effect.

As mentioned, Cave and director John Hillcoat seem to have approached the material with a focus on realism over artifice, or any old-timey romantic notions about violence. The Proposition is an often brutal and ugly film. All the same, the jarring in-your-face bloodshed is not poured on for entertainment value, but rather, as the grisly and unsettling outcome of men destined to clash in an awe-inspiring yet unforgiving landscape ruled by ruthless brutality.

The look of the film complements the story perfectly, balancing the oft-times beautiful and harsh elements that are prevalent to both the Outback, and the story in which it is set. Cinematographer Benoit Delhomme does an excellent job capturing the glorious beauty of a multi-hued sunset, or a sparkling, star-dappled night sky against a silhouette of naked tree branches. He then contrasts such eye-catching imagery with the deadly, rippling blaze of the sun, or an immense buzzing cloud of flies – an omnipresent harbinger of death that crawls into mouths and literally covers people’s clothing. In addition to this, the radiating heat of the desert is almost tangible throughout The Proposition – the fiery eye of the sun seemingly unrelenting as it beats down on the film’s sweat-soaked, grime-caked characters.

Thematically the film makes good use of the contrast between the emerging civilization and the “uncivilized” violence that is a result of that burgeoning community’s attempt to tame an “untamed” land. To be sure, much of the film’s conflict relies on this balance, which proves to be anything but harmonious. As refinements of modern civilization tend to give way under the strain caused by the harsh desert locale, a clash with primitive survival instincts emerges, and violence appears to supersede any notions of civility.

The character Arthur Burns, an intelligent, educated man who is also perhaps the most savagely violent character in The Proposition, is also the one person who appears to have reconciled the two, attaining a personal balance by embracing his primitive violent tendencies with the cultural refinement he obviously possesses. The fact that many of the Aboriginal tribesmen in the area believe that Arthur is a man that transforms into an animal underscores this concept.

In relation to this, the characters Cpt. Stanley, a civil authority, and Charlie Burns, a criminal, might appear to be at opposite ends of the struggle between civil order and barbarous acts, but both epitomize this conflict for balance, their parallel story arcs mirroring each other, and effectively dovetailing by film’s end. Overall, this conflict at the heart of the film and its characters is an intriguing aspect of The Proposition, and one which enriches the overall viewing experience.

Another of the film’s highlights is a truly remarkable cast. Apart from the lead actors already mentioned, and who all do great work, Emily Watson plays the role of Emma – Cpt. Stanley’s genteel British wife who has been transplanted to the inhospitable Australian desert environs, and whom Cpt. Stanley struggles desperately to shield the violent realities of his occupation from. Also, the great John Hurt appears as a grizzled bounty hunter named Jellon Lamb, patiently biding his time in an attempt to eventually nab the elusive, verging on mythical, eldest Burns brother, Arthur. Last, David Wenham, most famous for his role as Faramir in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, does an outstanding job playing Cpt. Stanley’s despicable, bloodthirsty superior, Eden Fletcher.

To be certain, The Proposition is obviously not for moviegoers hoping for light entertainment, nor does it aim to be a feel-good shoot ‘em up crowd-pleaser. Also, Western fans hoping for lasso tricks and campfire sing-alongs simply need not apply. Instead, The Proposition offers a really well-made, engrossing film, with interesting and believable characters, and some excellent performances. The subject matter is dark, at times verging on nihilistic, and the filmmakers are unflinching in their approach to the material and violence without being excessive. While I don’t foresee the film doing a “dough-si-dough” at the box-office, The Proposition is a damn fine movie that will hopefully find an audience. For fans of the Western genre’s more uncompromising films, it’s a movie not to be missed.

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