A relentlessly intense and deeply affecting experience from beginning to end, The Proposition, which was originally released in 2005 and is now receiving a Blu-ray re-release, remains an example of the best of the modern western. Expertly balancing the horror and brutality of its central narrative with a deft hand for evoking atmosphere, and making use of an environment that is at once incredibly intimidating and starkly beautiful.
Set in the 1880s in Australia, the film follows Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), a former member of the notorious Burns gang, led by his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Charlie, along with his timid younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by police captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) after a skirmish, and are offered clemency for their crimes in exchange for Charlie heading out to find and kill his older brother, who is wanted for rape and murder. Mikey stays in custody after Charlie reluctantly agrees to the terms. Meanwhile, Stanley attempts to keep the peace and prevent angry sentiment among the locals towards Mikey from derailing his plan and risking retribution from Arthur.
The film does not shy away from the brutality of the time, portraying the callousness and cruelty of colonialism in an unflinching and uncompromising manner. That cruelty sticks to every character like the sweat that shines on their skin, visible in every facial expression and interaction, amplified by the flies that are ubiquitous in almost every scene. The misery which accompanies that cruelty permeates through to the formal elements of the film. The cinematography is beautiful throughout, shot with precision and a keen sense of that contrast between natural beauty and human cruelty by Benoît Delhomme, and is evoked even more strongly by Nick Cave & Warren Ellis’ score, which shifts between sorrowful, aching wonder and creeping dread on a scene by scene basis.
Cave also wrote the script for the film, and he has a real sense for the characters. As well as how to deconstruct who they are, and what they have become in the face of what they are forced to go through. And the sense of barely restrained contempt that the atmosphere demands. Cave works with director John Hillcoat to portray an Outback that scorns its human inhabitants and the horrors of Empire. This is made most clear through Stanley, whom Ray Winstone portrays with admirable nuance as a man on the brink. His disposition gradually deteriorating over the course of the film, as he attempts to prevent his careful machinations from collapsing all around him. But is also portrayed through the film’s candid and honest depiction of how British imperialist notions of ‘civilisation’ had a devastating impact on Indigenous Australians. And exacerbated the ways in which they were horrifically mistreated to further the goals and desires of the colonisers. This is evoked through multiple Indigenous characters, with David Gulpilil’s portrayal of Jacko, a tracker working with Stanley who ends up having to liaise with prisoners on Stanley’s behalf, standing out as a key example.
Performances are in fact uniformly excellent throughout here. With Guy Pearce excelling as Charlie, providing him with a quiet gravitas as well as a sense that he’s attempting to grasp onto whatever sliver of humanity is left within him. There’s a desperation about Charlie that comes through in Pearce’s expression and in the cadence of his line delivery that soaks into all of his scenes. As the value of retaining a sense of self and any kind of moral code is thrown into question by a society and situation that seems both thankless and hopeless. That debate happens internally in his character, and as the cogs turn in his brain, the world does not relent, throwing more misery on the pile every chance it gets. He is contrasted superbly by Danny Huston’s brilliantly judged turn as his brother Arthur. Where Charlie is generally a picture of quiet contemplation, Arthur bursts with an exuberant personality that hides his dark side: one that is capable of wanton and indiscriminate cruelty.
It may sound like The Proposition is a rough watch. Even as it achieves a lot of admirable and difficult things, and it can be when the sense of menace and brutality overpowers its other themes. But there’s plenty to appreciate here outside of the more intensely visceral. Cave and Hillcoat put together a depiction of an incredibly difficult era of Australia’s history that addresses topics like colonialism, racism and what it means to be family with nuance, never losing the sense of humanity that ties all of those things together, for better or worse. It is an example of exemplary filmmaking, and deserves a place as one of the most accomplished westerns of the 21st century.
The Proposition will be re-released on BFI UHD, Blu-ray & digital on April 11th.