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Saturday, October 1, 2011

THE PROPOSITION -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at in 2005.)

I love Westerns, and it's fun to see one that takes place in Australia. All the classic elements are there--cowboys, horses, six guns, deserts, even an indigneous population at war with the white settlers--but everything's just a little different in interesting ways. Like 1990's QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER, director John Hillcoat's THE PROPOSITION (2005) takes all the familiar ingredients of the Western and gives them an Aussie spin, but unlike that movie, it's dark, gritty, downbeat, and brutally violent.

Right after the main titles, we're thrust directly into the middle of one of those shootouts in which the bad guys are holed up in a rickety shack and the good guys are turning it into Swiss cheese. People are getting blown away left and right in a dense hail of bullets, including a couple of prostitutes who should've stayed home that day.

When it's all over, Irish outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, LA CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO) and his little brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are in chains and at the mercy of the local law-enforcement official, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who is determined to bring the killers responsible for the recent massacre of the entire Hopkins family to justice.

But Captain Stanley knows that Charlie and his brother have left the infamous Burns Gang, and that the real culprit is Charlie's older brother, Arthur, a psychotic killer who is perhaps the most feared outlaw in the country. So he offers a proposition--he will give Charlie guns and a horse, and nine days in which to venture into the wasteland where Arthur is hiding out and kill him. If he fails, his brother Mikey will hang on Christmas day.

At first Captain Stanley appears to be a cold, cruel lawman, but we gradually discover that his heart isn't really in his job, especially when it consists of hunting and killing aborigines and dealing with the boorish cretins who work for him.

His main concern is to provide a stable, civilized life for his beloved wife, Martha (Emily Watson), protecting her from the harsh realities that he faces daily. Their house is an immaculate oasis of civility surrounded by a rose garden that seems always on the verge of being swallowed up by the desert.

But when Stanley's strutting martinet of a boss, Fletcher (LORD OF THE RINGS' "Faramir", David Wenham) begins to question Stanley's "proposition" and then demands that Mikey Burns be given one-hundred lashes on the main street of town, which will most likely kill him and bring the rest of the Burns Gang down upon them, things begin to fall apart.

And what of Charlie Burns and the proposition? We see him set out into the desert and eventually find his brother, Arthur, but we're never sure whether he'll kill him or rejoin the gang. Guy Pearce is one of my favorite actors--I love to just watch his face as he shows us what his character is thinking about. As Arthur, Danny Huston (THE AVIATOR) wisely avoids the temptation to overdo the "psycho" bit--in fact, his character is all the more unsettling because he acts so semi-normal. He recites poetry, watches sunsets (this is a beautifully-photographed movie), and extols the virtues of family love and togetherness.

But he's still a psycho, and when he kills people, it's messy. (In fact, this is one of the most splattery Westerns I've ever seen, with almost enough blood and gore to rival BLOOD FEAST.)

Arthur is joined in this carnage by a snivelling little nutcase named Sam (Tom Budge) who sings in a beautiful Irish tenor voice while he rapes women, and whom I couldn't wait to see get his really good. There's also a brief but effective appearance by John Hurt as a bounty hunter who wants to kill Arthur before anyone else does.

Nick Cave, who composed the haunting score, has written a Western that is light on gunplay--there are no actual "gunfights" after the intial sequence, and one reviewer's invocation of Sergeo Leone's name seems somewhat misplaced--but there's plenty of action. More important, though, is the drama between the characters, and it's often riveting.

As Captain Stanley, Ray Winstone gives a fine performance and we sympathize with his character, a proper Englishman who is nearing the end of his rope as the savagery of his surroundings begins to close in on him. Emily Watson ably conveys his sheltered wife Martha's almost childlike vulnerability, and her naive incredulity that such things as the "Hopkins outrage" could happen to her own close friends.

When Christmas day arrives, husband and wife dress in their finest clothes and partake in an elegant turkey dinner (complete with a shipped-in Christmas tree), a serenely polite and proper ritual that is both heartwarming and sad in its utter futility. Because this fragile recreation of the civilized world they yearn to return to is about to be shattered by a shotgun blast through their front door and a nightmarish ordeal that will rival the horror of the Hopkins outrage.


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