The film is probably known most due to its script, which was written by Nick Cave, the musician. It is certainly not known as a John Hillcoat film, since, I believe, this is his first film, and that he had spent his time early making music videos. It is possible that people could know it due to Guy Pearce or Ray Winstone, but I think most of the draw to the film is, and remains, the involvement of Cave. He and Dirty Three member Warren Ellis provide the score for the film, which is really quite beautiful. Certainly, I have to admit that Cave was my draw.
As I said, I liked the film. It's flawed, which I will get to in a moment, but what I liked most about the film was how it portrayed Australia, all dry and worn out yellows and browns, the bright light bleeding everywhere, turning it into a harsh but strangely beautiful place. When Winstone's British born Captain Stanley looks out a window in the first stages of the film, and says, "What fresh hell is this?" it is almost as if the film takes it upon itself to answer that question, and does so, right up until the end.
In this way, the Proposition reminds me rather of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, with its stunning visuals:
"At dusk of the third day they rode into the town of Corralitos, the horses shuffling through the caked ash and the sun glaring redly through the smoke. The smelter chimneys were ranged against an ashen sky and the globy lights of the furnaces glowered under the dark of the hills. It had rained int he day and the window lights of the low mud houses were reflected in pools along the flooded road out of which great dripping swine rose moaning before the advancing horses like oafish demons routed from a fen. The houses were loopholed and parapeted and the air was filled with the fumes of arsenic."
Since that thought occurred to me early on, the Proposition became more about visuals, and touring through the newly named, newly invaded Australia, and was not so much about the narrative of the film.
Which is probably why I liked it, since the narrative is probably the weakest part of the film. In a tin shack brothel, Charlie Burns and his brother Mikey are captured by Captain Stanley. The Burns gang has become notable for the horrific raping and killing of a family some months prior, but the events of which have also driven two of the Burns brothers to split from the third, Arthur Burns, who resides in the hills with a black man and woman, a sweet sounding white boy, and his dog. It is this Burns, a kind of mysterious, but ultimately callous killer, who Stanley wants brought to justice, having figured that it was he who was responsible for the attack. To that extent, he offers Charlie, the lean, pale, deathly looking Guy Pearce, the chance to save his young brother by going into the hills and doing what he cannot: kill Arthur Burns.
The premise is fine and excellent, but the real problem with the film is that Pearce's character does not engage with his brother. He is too passive, too withdrawn, and his brother, played by John Huston, too lost in his mysterious man routine, talking about the beautiful land, for you to much care about what is going to happen between the pair of them. You know, at any rate, the Charlie is not going to kill his brother in the hills, and that the Burns Gang is going to ride into the town to rescue Mikey, the younger brother, so why bother wasting time playing the maybe card in the middle of the film?
Fortunately for the film, Ray Winstone is there as Captain Stanley, and as is often the way, Winstone delivers an excellent performance to lift a film where it is otherwise failing. As the troubled, isolated captain who wants to bring civilisation to the land, Winstone is the centre of the film, and he is complimented in this by Emily Watson as his lonely, equally isolated wife. The two provide the centre of the film, and the growing tragedy that is going to befall them when the Burns Gang rides in to rescue Mikey is what keeps it going.
It is, as I said, a good film. Cave shows that he can put a good script down, though he could have lost a few characters, and restrained himself with Arthur Burns; but he and Ellis also deliver a great score, and this compensates any failings of the script, I feel. The look of the film and the acting, outside Huston's Arthur Burns, is also good. Most of the faults of the film can be found in how it has been pieced together, and the occasional clunky, lost pace, and one can't help but think that if it had been in the hands of a more competent director, that the Proposition would have been a really great film, rather than a good one.