A character in the formidable western The Proposition calls Australia "godforsaken". He means it literally. The characters are like escapees from a daguerreotype who will soon fade away and be forgotten. They accept this as the fate of all men. "I used to be a believer," says a mangy bounty hunter played by John Hurt, whose desiccated body looks like a strip of fly-bitten beef jerky. "But when I came to this beleaguered land, the god in me evaporated." It is a bitter, scarred place. And yet there are aching sunsets, a glaring moon, and the sky, a dome of ten thousand stars. If God is absent, he is certainly watching from above.
The Burns family, a gang of Irish killers, has massacred the Hopkins family: father, pregnant mother, and a baby. We aren’t told why. When the film begins, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, stringy and steel-eyed like a wolf without fur) and the simpleton brother he protects, Mikey (Richard Wilson), have been ambushed and captured by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone, of Sexy Beast). But Stanley really wants Arthur, the family’s leader, who hides in the hills and dispenses murder, rape, and beheading as tools of terror.
Captain Stanley makes Charlie a deal. Charlie will be released and given a gun and a horse. He has nine days to find Arthur and kill him; he and Mikey will then be pardoned. If he fails, on Christmas day, Mikey will hang. "You’re a copper, not judge and jury," Charlie says. "Take another look," says Stanley. "I can do anything I want."
Stanley is a hard man, but not an evil one. He has come to Australia from Britain to civilize the place. Is that even possible? Look at his home, alone in the country. It’s rimmed by a white picket fence, behind which Stanley tends to his wife and his roses – both an affront to the landscape. Compare Stanley with Little Bill’s haunting last words in Unforgiven : "I was building a house." When you see a pair of boots abandoned on Stanley’s front stoop, consider their meaning.
Though the film may seem to be Captain Stanley’s, it is not: it is Charlie’s. He is caught between brothers. In once scene, split in two, unable to act, he vomits. For most of the film, he is a witness. But in the end, as all men must, he will be judge – and he will act.
The Australian Director, John Hillcoat, a feature film newcomer, has an absolute clarity of style that fits the material. This is complimented by a spare and fitting musical score by musician Nick Cave, of The Bad Seeds. Cave also conceived of and wrote the screenplay, which has not an ounce of fat.
The Proposition put me in mind of Sergio Leone’s westerns, and especially of Sam Peckinpah’s. It also made me think of the films The Piano , Walkabout , Mad Max , One False Move – and even the Old Testament itself. You know that when you start rattling off the classics, you’ve really seen something. The Proposition inhabits the same mythic dream world as those others – violent, doomed – but because of that, beautiful. It shares, almost word-for-word, a last line with last month’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada . Two great westerns in as many months is a rare and unexpected gift, and a testament to the continued vibrancy of the form.
The Proposition is playing at the Landmark Theaters in Indianapolis. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.