The Proposition

Director: John Hillcoat
With: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone

Runtime: 104 min

The opening sequence of The Proposition is a hypnotically beautiful evocation of a strange time and place: grainy black-and-white photographs show men, women and graves, while a child sings of a happy land and happy times. Then, with a slash and a crash, we are in a squalid hut, littered with sunbeams that shine through bullet holes in the walls, and we see a band of people fighting for their lives against some unseen enemy on the outside.

The intersection of past and present, innocence and horror, shelter and wilderness, and family and outsiders is what powers director John Hillcoat’s film: a patient, at times slow yet exceptionally and painfully consequent Australian Western.

The people in the hut who aren’t torn apart by bullets are outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his kid brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), their assailants the forces of law and order, led by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley has a proposition for Burns: either he tracks down and kills his older brother Arthur, or by Christmas Mikey hangs.

“I will civilise this land” is Stanley’s catchphrase, but beneath the badass persona he likes to cultivate dwells a startling impotence which comes to the fore in several touching scenes with his wife (Emily Watson). Their little world, complete with christmas tree, turkey and rose garden, is about to become the grave that Stanley digs for himself with his every action. The irony and pathos in their struggle to make sense of a barbaric world is essentially more unbearable than the physical mutilations on screen, of which there are plenty.

Benoît Delhomme’s precise cinematography emphasises the stifling heat and astonishing Australian countryside with its wide plains and sporadic hills, a foreign place which haunts and inhabits each character. John Hurt, playing a flamboyant, chilly bounty hunter, resembles a character straight out of Dante’s Inferno with his head twisted in grotesque angles, his eyes hollowed out by the play of light in his pitch-black home.

The plot steers towards a sort of purgatorial fire where each conflict is indiscriminately resolved in one final, triumphant circus of violence: by the end the film has drained itself. This is a Western where every character can be seen as some kind of parasite. Brutal, bloody and brilliant, this is a parable with obvious roots in popular mythology, a mostly homogeneous and astoundingly rich yet simple tale.

Reviewed by
Paul Becker