Posted on 15 September 2009.
The Old American West has always been a land of enchantment, mystery, romance, prosperity and growth. It was our culture’s “manifest destiny” to take it. A lot of the inflated romanticism about the west was transcended into film. Much of the early movies featured singing cowboys, clean-cut ranch hands and the heroic Calvary battling the evil Indians. However, the actual west was not like that at all. It was treacherous, untamed and filled with criminals, bounty hunters, gamblers and horse thieves. Finally, an Italian (not an American), epitomized much of the true “American West” for the screen. Sergio Leone’s vision of the west was much more violent, the characters were mysterious and not easily likable and turned our beloved west into a barren wasteland. Perhaps a place even more barren and untamed than the American West is the Australian Outback (even to this day).
Much like the mid-to-late 19th century America, Australia was also experiencing vast growth and prosperity. Clothing, the architectural style of the towns and social lifestyles were very similar. Instead of the class struggle between the Calvary and Indians, Anglo-Europeans and the native Aborigines replaced it. The Proposition, though not devoted to showcasing the entire history of this era of Australia, shows a small personal and compelling glimpse of what life was like back then. Borrowing from the morally ambiguous topics of Leone’s west, The Proposition is easily the best representation of the Australian “west.” Of course, how can it be considered a “western” when it takes place in Australia? Well, both the Outback and the west of the era shows the same imagery and explores the same western themes. The Proposition isn’t the first Australian western, but I haven’t come across too many. Ned Kelly, Quigley Down Under and last year’s Australia are a few that come to mind. Written by Australian musician Nick Cave (who also provides the score), The Proposition offers a look of how brutal and violent the Outback was.
The key word is "desolate."
After the Hopkins family homestead is raped, murdered and pillaged by the Burns gang, a manhunt ensues to bring them to justice. The gang then splits into two factions with one part going into the desolate Outback lead by sociopath Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) and the other going into hiding, lead by younger brother Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce). Accompanying Charlie is the youngest Burns brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson). Charlie, who grew weary of Arthur’s truly evil, psychotic nature, splits from him because he wants no part of murdering innocent people, plus he doesn’t want to expose naïve Mikey to the gang’s violent behavior. When authorities ambush Charlie’s gang, a violent gunfight ensues and most of his gang is killed, except for himself and Mikey.
Sitting at a table in a cramped-up shack, Charlie is approached by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley first looks out the shack’s window and says, “Australia, what fresh hell is this?” He proclaims to Charlie that he will civilize the land from outlaws (like the Burns gang) and the native people. Stanley, who has to punish them for the Hopkins murders, generously gives Charlie a proposition. Stanley believes Charlie did not commit any rape or murder of the Hopkins family and younger Mikey was too mentally challenged to pull it off. He does, however want to bring Arthur to justice, dead or alive. He lets Charlie go in order to find Arthur in the unforgiving Outback and kill him. If he does, he will grant Charlie and Mikey a full pardon. If not, Mikey will hang from the gallows. Charlie has nine days to find Arthur.
Meanwhile, Stanley must deal with the constant “threat” of the native Aboriginals and shielding his innocent wife, Martha Stanley (Emma Watson), from the local town. Stanley and his wife are originally from England and he is transferred to Australia to bring order to the land. Stanley must also deal with alienation from the town for making a proposition to a murderous gang and excessive pressure from his superior, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham). Fletcher greatly disapproves of Stanley’s proposition and is on the verge of relieving him of his duties.
Charlie must make the tough choice to find out what is right or wrong within himself, even if it means killing his brother. He crosses paths with bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) who aims to kill Arthur for a reward. Charlie knocks him out and continues toward Arthur’s camp. He is soon attacked by Aborigines and is rescued by Arthur’s gang. Arthur, nicknamed “Dog Man,” never sleeps at night and has a constant lust for blood. When Charlie finally confronts him, he is forced into a moral dilemma. He must make the tough choice of killing his cold-blooded murdering brother (but still family) or rejoining his regrettable lifestyle of being on the run, even at the risk of losing his younger brother.
Long lost screenshot from Guy Pearce's audition tape for 'The Passion of the Christ.'
Danny Huston as Arthur Burns is truly the scariest and sickest western villain I have ever seen. You never know when he will lunge to kill or just lull you into a casual conversation about family. You hate him, but are also intrigued about how a human being could be so evil. Huston is magnificent in the role and truly gives the best performance of the film. You’re also not sure about Charlie himself. Yes, he didn’t commit any rape or murder, but you’re not sure if he wants to go back to his old ways. Guy Pearce plays Charlie as a mysterious individual and makes his moral intentions undefined. You question his past, but feel for him because he loves his younger brother Mikey and will do anything to protect him. Ray Winstone is also superb. He is forceful in the nature of his job, but is also a gentleman to his wife and the Aboriginals. His and Emma Watson’s characters are truly the only good-hearted people in the film. You could say Mikey is somewhat innocent, but is still was associated with Arthur.
I haven’t seen so many mysterious characters in one western before, even above Leone’s. This is how the true west was like and Nick Cave nails it with his fabulous script. His score, which accompanies his writing, is triumphant, as it is asked to drive the movie and leaves a haunting impression. He also gives respect to the native Australian population by giving them important roles and making them a major part of the story. Aboriginal actors David Gulpili and Tommy Lewis were very good and you come out with a better appreciation of their culture. Cave bridges the gap between those who where modernized and those who kept hold of old tradition. Lewis, who plays Two-Bob and is part of the Burns gang, dresses in then-modern clothes, uses a gun and speaks in an Aussie accent. Gulpili, who plays Jacko, and is scout for the authorities, is the exact opposite. He uses the native tongue, uses traditional weaponry like the spear and dresses in native clothing. Cave brings in both cultures and wonderfully blends them together.
Much of the credit should also go to director John Hillcoat. Hillcoat makes Cave’s blood-drenched script come alive with beautiful panoramic shots of the Outback and quick editing sequences during the more violent scenes. His dark-lit shots of Danny Huston make his character seem truly evil. Hillcoat’s direction, combined with Cave’s script, help create one of the bloodier western masterpieces. The Proposition is truly an excellent western, a great film and one you need to seek out.
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