Despite a wildly misleading, spoiler-filled trailer that presents it as a violence-driven action film, The Proposition is in fact a western much more in the style of Terrence Malick than that of Sergio Leone. Written by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, the film is dominated by the barren landscape of wildest Australia, and manages the nearly impossible task of combining great tension with languorous pacing. The violence, when it occurs, reflects not Leone’s glorious, long-awaited explosions, but rather the horror and suffering of real life. Nothing about the west in The Proposition is romantic or seductive: this place is lawless and dirty and full of death.
Set in Australia during the era of the bushranger (criminals who hid in the Outback to avoid capture; Ned Kelly, subject of the Heath Ledger film of the same name, is easily the most famous) that fell during the last half of the 19th century, The Proposition opens with the brutal capture of two such men, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger bother, Mikey (Richard Wilson). Along with older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the two men are known to have raped and killed a woman and her family, so both face death by hanging. Desperate to capture Arthur, however, and unable to extract Arthur from his Outback hiding place, the British commander (Maurice Stanley, wonderfully played by Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a deal: if he finds and kills his brother by Christmas -- nine days’ time -- Mikey will be spared the hangman’s noose. Just as fiercely protective of his simple-minded brother as the Captain suspected, Burns accepts the deal; Mikey is taken to prison and his brother begins his search.
With this setup as its narrative engine, Hillcoat’s film takes off in an unexpected direction. Instead of focusing on the story, of one brother’s pursuit of the other, his film examines the inner lives of its protagonists, and the terrible prices they pay for their choices. On one side is Charlie Burns, a wiry, weary man whose life in unavoidably violent and punishing. As played by Peace, he’s wordless and, often, virtually expressionless, grimly treading the path he has chosen, without visible regret. One gets the feeling that he long ago gave up sorrow as a sign of weakness; life is short and brutal, so there’s no point in fighting it, or complaining about ones fate.
On the other side stands Captain Stanley: recently-arrived from England with wife Martha (Emily Watson), he is determined, as he repeatedly growls, to civilize a land he describes as “hell.” Though on one hand he is heartless enough to force a man to kill one brother to save another, Stanley also displays more outward sensitivity than anyone around him. When his secret agreement with Burns is revealed to the little town in which he’s stationed, his dirty, unshaven face falls so completely that it looks like tears are just seconds away. Taking place as it does in front of a superior, that openness and vulnerability are as shocking within the world of The Proposition as tears would have been. Deemed weak by his underlings, Stanley struggles desperately to do what he believe is right, only to realize, tragically, that he has no idea what “right” is.
Alongside Burns’ furious stoicism, Stanley’s desperate searching stands at the center of The Proposition, both are clear, unavoidable indicators that no matter how hard one tries, almost nothing in their world can be controlled. Even the occasional scenes of violence make a mockery of the illusion of control. Instead of being swift and decisive, they inevitably are sloppy, drawn-out, and impossibly cruel. Deaths don’t happen quickly or quietly in this world. Instead, they pass with horrible, uncontrollable sounds of human suffering, the noise human flesh makes when its struck by a foreign object, and explosions of blood that coat anyone nearby. Within The Proposition, there is neither grace nor dignity in death, only more pain and suffering for everyone involved
In addition to his unconventional narrative choices, Hillcoat’s film departs from the mainstream with its unusual look, as well. Though it does contain conventional close-ups, an unusually high percentage of The Proposition is filmed in longshot. Whether the images are of figures dwarfed by landscape, or a couple sitting down for dinner, the camera tends to stay far away from the action, a choice that again emphasizes the insignificance of the characters. Like their unforgiving environment, the camera is just another distant observer, unaffected by the suffering of the people it surveys, and unwilling to get close enough to risk involvement in their lives. While increasing the isolation of its characters, this visual style also serves to showcase the breathtakingly vast nature of the Australian Outback. Over and over again, figures are shown standing or riding in the middle of a massive, unending plains, images that are presented less to show the progress of the character or story, than to build up the personality and presence of the Outback. By the film’s end, the landscape is an equal partner in the story with both Burns and Stanley, a fact that’s confirmed in its final scene of companionship.
The Proposition may not be a great film, but it certainly stands as a harshly lovely, hypnotic piece of art. Unconventional in its lack of interest in narrative drive, the movie nevertheless present a certain kind of truth in its beauty, brutality, and dismal insignificance, and Cave and Hillcoat should to be applauded for their commitment to the unrelenting darkness of that truth. Their movie may not be pleasurable to sit through, but its core is more profoundly real than anything else we’re likely to encounter in an American theater this year.