Film review: The Proposition

This is an older review of mine, presented here for archival purposes. The writing is undoubtedly different to the present, and the review style may differ between publications. Enjoy, if that’s the right word. 

There have been few Australian films as hotly anticipated as The Proposition. The combination of director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave (who have created film clips together, and were previously teamed on the thoroughly disturbing Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead) and a cast including Guy PearceRay WinstoneJohn Hurt and David Wenham served to create quite an appetite. The good news is that the expectations created by such a gathering of talents are surpassed with this film. It’s a truculent, smouldering piece that, while managing to have a core story that’s straight out of a western, manages to address issues which still dog Australia today.

The film’s opening scene – a moment’s pleasure torn apart in a hail of bullets – certainly hooks the viewer. It’s certainly the most dynamic, action-filled scene in the movie, and it’s here that the proposition of the title is made. Local lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) presents Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), an Irishman of questionable morality and criminality, with a deal: in order to save his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) from the gallows, he must hunt down his psychotic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him.

It’s an easy enough deal, and one that Charlie seems to accept – except there’s flies in the ointment. Stanley’s deal is threatened by local landowner Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), as well as increasing pressures to capture troublemaking Aborigines, while Charlie’s mission is made more difficult by the appearance of a bounty hunter. From here on in, the story turns from what in other hands might’ve solely been a relentless hunting-down, into a meditation on family and the responsibilities it’s owed, both on the side of the law and the lawless.

The performances in the film are universally good, with some cast members being truly outstanding. Guy Pearce is, as expected, fine as the brother who must kill one of his siblings to save another – all unwashed, lank hair and rapid blinking. Danny Huston occasionally channels Billy Connolly – it could be the bushy hair and the wild-eyed, trickster demeanour – while elsewhere Leah Purcell and David Gulpilil provide some particularly subtle characters. The shittalking townsfolk – particularly the troopers who undermine Stanley when he’s not around – are a guilty pleasure, too.

The performance that really intrigues, however, is Ray Winstone’s Captain Stanley. It’s easily the best role of his career thus far, and though he is the instigator of the proposition that ultimately brings unhappiness to a number of the film’s characters, it’s very difficult to dislike him. Stanley’s interactions with his wife, Martha (Emily Watson) are always protective, though often wildly divergent in character. He’s a man adrift, lost in a world that he knows he must tame but is almost certain he cannot. The comments on colonialism, on identity, on power and on the idea of keeping up appearances that’re contained in Stanley’s character are manifold, though Winstone is careful enough not to turn his musings into proclamations. It’s a beautiful performance of a man who’s slowly disintegrating, who’s unable to fit where he’s put, and the emotion felt for the character at some junctures in the film is surprising and real.

Both Winstone and Pearce’s characters have a single-mindedness that puts the viewer very much in mind of the works of Patrick White; Voss in particular. The same sort of focus that that book’s titular character is given, the almost Christlike sense of being driven along a path that leads to unpleasantness or destruction is very much present in the two actors’ characters, and it’s a credit to them that they’re able to present it without losing credibility.

If there’s a downside to the performances in the film, it’s in the fact that David Wenham – while playing his role well – doesn’t really get the chance to perform to the degree that projects such as The Boys have shown he’s capable of. His Eden Fletcher remains something of a cipher throughout the film, which, while it makes the power he holds seem vaguely ominous, it also can make him appear a little two-dimensional. There’s more to him than starched collars, hair-oil and sadism, but sometimes it’s difficult to see it. A different disappointment comes in the form of John Hurt’s Jellon Lamb. He’s a wonderfully meaty character, though it seems that his role in the film – other than to highlight the quick-change nature of the surrounds – is somewhat undernourished.

Hillcoat’s direction contains a pretty meditative streak, something that’s certainly aided by the locale in which he’s shooting. The long, penetrating shots of the outside of the prison facility that gave Ghosts… Of The Civil Dead its oppressive feel return in The Proposition, but here, they’re focused on natural features, not man-made constructions. But the menace that many of these views hold is the same: we’re dealing with a landscape that’s no less dangerous than prison. In many ways, it’s more dangerous, because in this film, the power and malevolence that’s exhibited seems to come from the idea of nature asserting itself, of nature being given free reign. Indeed, in some shots, where the eldest, psychotic brother howls at the sky like a dingo, the feeling of channelled strength, of nature-invoked nastiness is very difficult to shake off.

There’s been much made about the use of violence in The Proposition, and many have suggested that it’s the case that Cave has been indulging his penchant for a bit of bloodletting, out of all step with the narrative. But from my viewing, I must say that this is a wholly inaccurate criticism of what occurs. The film is violent. This violence, however, is a reflection of both the landscape and the people upon it. There are scenes of incredible violence, but they are never gratuitous, except in one instance – but the abundance of gore in that particular scene is used to illustrate the fundamental lack of understanding of human limitations by one of the film’s major characters (Wenham’s landowner). Not only is this an instance of violence being used for character development – not shock – but it’s also something that’s commented upon by the small town’s chorus of locals. At the junction I’m referring to – and it’s pretty plain in the movie which it is – even the hardest, meanest frontier survivors blanch at what’s been dished out. There’s palpable disgust and dismay. (That, of course, is without getting into the evocations of Christ that the scene is filled with.)

Where Cave’s musical and filmic portrayals of violence differ is that here, there’s no nudge-nudge, Murder Ballads tongue-in-cheek feeling to take the edge off. You get the feeling, more than in any of his other work, that this is For Real. (Of course, this is perhaps criminally underplaying Hillcoat’s contributions, but given that the script dictates how things proceed onscreen, I believe it’s apt.)

The fundamental problem I see with accusations of wilful violence in the film is that it negates something that’s fundamentally true about the era that’s depicted: it was a time of violence. It was the time of the bushranger, the time of. Aboriginal denigration and destruction. The time for figures of authority who openly resorted to violence to contain locals who were often only a short step away from convicts. There’s a tendency to want to portray all people living at the point where civilization and the unknown hit each other as being somehow all upstanding: all goodly folk, free of disease, despair, and the smell of shit. It’s true, there’s a new century just around the corner from when this film’s set – but the action here happens away from the bright lights and big cities. It occurs in the moral miasma of the rural, a place where the strength of the residents was the difference between survival and failure, and it strikes me that it’d be a failure on the part of the filmmakers if they caved – no pun intended – on this particular point of realism.

The violence in the film isn’t such that it should stop anyone watching, but it is explicit, and in context, supports the story. Hillcoat’s style of direction seems to be set against the idea of showing anything that doesn’t contribute to the advancement of the story – this is a lean film, in many ways – and so it would be a bit of a fool’s errand to stuff in some bloodlust simply for the sake of it.

As you’d expect, the score – a joint effort between Cave and fellow Bad Seed (and Dirty Three main man) Warren Ellis – has a distinctly wire-and-wind quality to it that befits the action. There’s a distinct feeling of development as the film progresses, and the music’s underplayed in a way that allows the action onscreen – and not the names behind the tunes – to take your attention. It provides feeling by stealth, in an almost unobtrusive way, something that’s lost on many soundtrack composers today. There’s moments of heightened tension, usually ushered in by sinuous violin lines, but by and large it’s the subtlety of the soundtrack that really scores points for the film.

The Proposition is a film that’s as solidly satisfying as a novel, yet as shocking (in places) as a slasher flick. It’s not a stock-standard western, but neither is it the sepia-toned morass of self-congratulation that many films on early Australia are. It’s different, and it’s important, and it’s the sort of film that you hope would get a lot of attention overseas, if only to show that there’s more to us than Strictly Ballroom or Priscilla.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this film speaks to Australians more fulsomely about the harshness of their country’s earlier times than scores of films before it. It’s brutal, bloody, brotherly love wrapped in the thin tissue of societal boundaries, and it gives the audience no chance to look away, no chance to catch their breath. Like the place in which it is set, the film is both beautiful and unforgiving, both vital and dead. It is a joy to watch, a terror to behold, and, quite simply, one of the finest Australian films ever made. See it.

First published on FL in October 2005.

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