Monday, November 24, 2008

The Proposition (2005)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Proposition (2005)

Apart from the fact that it was a western set in Australia, I knew very little about this film, and was thus pleasantly surprised by it - it's not often I go into a film cold these days. The story, set in late 18th century Australia, starts off with criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and brother Mike (Richard Wilson) being captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winston). Stanley offers Charlie a proposition - find and kill the leader of the 'Burns gang', eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or youngster Mike dies within 9 days. The Burns gang has committed heinous crimes and are despised by the townspeople, and Arthur is now a recluse who hides away in the mountains. Charlie sets off to find Arthur, and Captain Stanley takes Mike back into town as a prisoner but faces hostility from the townsfolk, who are impatient and want swift retribution. Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson) - who like her husband is from England and foreign to the harsh outback - begins to get involved in proceedings despite his attempts to keep her sheltered and safe because her friend was murdered by the Burns gang.

The opening scene lulls you into thinking that the film might be predictable, but the story veers into unexpected territory early on. Expectations are subverted, and I'd go so far as to say that Ray Winston's Stanley is the real star of the film, and not Pierce. The story becomes more about his efforts to protect his wife from the ugliness of his job while dealing with the hostility of his own men and the town, who become restless with the waiting and angered by rumours that Stanley has cut a deal and intends to let the prisoner go. Meanwhile, in the secondary narrative thread Charlie heads off into the mountains in search of his brother, ostensibly to kill him, but there is some ambiguity about his intentions, possibly even ambivalence. Characters in this film aren't straightforward and predictable, with most being multi faceted and interesting, and in the case of Arthur, downright frightening.

There are aspects relating to racial tensions between the whites and aboriginals in the story, but this is secondary to the primary themes of family, loyalty, and (sometimes perverse) justice. The film is stark and uncompromising in its depiction of cruelty and brutality, as bleak as the harsh outback where much of the action takes place. Pearce is fine in his role, but it's Ray Winstone who shines as a character whose depiction transitions from loathsome to dignified and decent; Emily Watson is also excellent as the out of place wife becoming acclimatized to the harsh new world she finds herself in. There are plenty of other very good performances in the mix, including John Hurt as a bounty hunter, and Danny Huston's portrayal of Arthur. There's not much action in the film, but there is some cringe inducing violence that might put off the squeamish.

'The Proposition' is an excellent film, one that, despite having a lot going on, develops its storylines to culminate in a fitting, if slightly predictable, climax. It's a fine blend of character drama and tension, a film that creates an oppressively atmospheric setting. Director John Hillcoat's next film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road', which I hear is also very bleak and stark; based on this evidence, he seems the right man for the job (though, to be fair early word on that film has been mixed).


adolfo said...

"The Proposition" plays like a Western moved from Colorado to Hell. The characters are familiar: The desperado brothers, the zealous lawman, his civilized wife, the corrupt mayor, the old coots, the resentful natives. But the setting is the Outback of Australia as I have never seen it before.

dbackdad said...

I hadn't heard about the Proposition when it was in the theaters but came upon the used DVD in the bargain bins a couple of years ago. Bought it and it sat on the shelf for awhile. Finally watched it and loved it. Reviewed it on my blog here.

Antimatter said...

I'm not the biggest Western buff, but I have to say The Proposition was right up my alley... familiar yet new...