Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson

Directed by John Hillcoat

Written by Nick Cave

Not since Dead Man ten years earlier can any film in the Western vein be said to be as gritty, visceral and amoral as John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. Its success at attaining period realism – in design, art and writing – is spot on, and its drama startling and entertaining, if not completely compelling.

Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns who, along with his young brother Mikey, is caught in a raid by police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley gives Burns an offer: kill his older brother Arthur, wanted for the horrific and wanton murder of a local family, and he and Mikey can go free. If he refuses, Stanley will see to it that Mikey hangs on Christmas Day.

This is the deal behind the film’s title, and from here on the viewer embarks on a bloody sweep through the Australian of the 1880s, filled with poetry-spewing bounty hunters, spear-throwing Aborginals, and homicidal Irishmen. We follow Charlie as he meets up with his brother’s gang, and we follow Stanley, crushed underneath the weight of his statement: “this land will be civilized”. From its beginning to its inevitably violent conclusion, The Proposition takes no prisoners and offers no quarter, remaining in every way as lawless and uncompromising as its setting.

No character looks good, with the only make-up in the film reserved for gore-effects and the face-powder of Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson), really the only female part in the movie. They are all denizens of one of the worst places on earth at the time – the Australian outback – and they look the part. Guy Pearce, whose claim to fame came from being a model, is haggard, emaciated and covered in grime the entire movie. His face is lined and tired-looking, and his ribs protrude out of skin like the bones of a carcass. Making a habit of ingesting opiate powder for the film’s duration, Ray Winstone’s brow is lined with sweat, his face constantly wet and ruddy, and he wheezes at every exertion.

But as far as its realism goes, the little, easily overlooked details tell you all you need to know about the director’s vision and the lengths gone to in order to remain true. A small bloody scratch appears and remains on Emily Watson’s forehead after a shotgun retort blasts open the door to the dining room; the crazed, homicidal character Samuel Stoat washes his blood-stained body, then puts a clean shirt on despite the long blood smear on his chest that he missed; the same character hastily wipes off his hands on his dirty shirt before handling the earrings that Captain Stanley got his wife for Christmas. These are the meaty bits to a good feast of a movie, the tiny details that indicate to a demanding viewer just how much the makers cared.

The Proposition was greeted by U.S. Critics with much aplomb, but keep in mind that the excitement coming from mainstream critics about revisionist Westerns is about as predictable nowadays as an explosion in a Michael Bay movie. When Unforgiven (1992) came out it was “the best Western by anybody in 20 years”, and when 3:10 to Yuma (2006) was remade it was “the best Western since ‘Unforgiven’”, and so on. Where The Proposition makes its mark isn’t in its plot, which is very simple, or its characters – there is no one to really “root” for -, or its meaning – try to find one that isn’t bleak – but inherently the greatness is in its LACK of those three cinematic mainstays.

For this and its violence it has oft and recklessly been compared to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), one of film’s greatest and most original Westerns, but it’s more comparable to Peckinpah’s less thought-provoking Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). While neither film particularly glorifies the amoral violence of the times, where both lawmen and criminals did awful deeds under the Western sun, there is no restraint on the carnage that their efforts at realism dictate. There is also no attempt, subtle or heavy-handed, at reconciling the moral and the immoral. No character is decent, no man any less deserving of the film’s bloody violence than the other. These characters are ruled by selfishness, loathing, bloodlust, racism and greed. Even Guy Pearce’s actions at film’s end are less about doing the right thing and more about finally putting an end to a fraternal hatred.

The Proposition is beautiful in its violence, and purposefully murky in its message. It doesn’t try to commentate on prejudice – whether it’s racism towards Aboriginals or a continuance of the age-old Anglo-Irish feud – but merely shows a director’s vision of the times, and should be taken as such.

Images courtesy of allmoviephoto.com and guardian.co.uk.com, respectively.

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