Proposition, The (Australia/United Kingdom, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold. The Proposition illustrates that, extending the metaphor, revenge is more often bitter than sweet. Gritty to the point of being disturbing, The Proposition examines the revenge thriller not as the culmination of righteous indignation, but as a pyrrhic victory devoid of catharsis. On the surface, The Proposition may echo Hollywood's storied Westerns, but the look and the feel of the film are more disquieting than anything that John Ford or Sergio Leone ever brought to the screen. Closer cousins might be Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and the HBO TV show Deadwood.

The film transpires in Australia during the late 1800s, in a setting that could easily be the American Old West. Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) has been brought from England to bring order to the lawless land. His immediate targets are the three Burns brothers, who recently participated in the rape and murder of a family of settlers. Stanley's objective is to eliminate the oldest Burns, Arthur (Danny Huston), whom he believes to be the ringleader and a monster. So when he captures the other two, Charlie (Guy Pearce), and Mike (Richard Wilson), he sees an opportunity. He offers Charlie a chance for freedom for himself and Mike. If Charlie will find and kill Arthur, Stanley will pardon both men. If not, Mike will hang nine days hence, on Christmas Day. Free, at least for the time being, Charlie goes in search of his sociopath brother, but things don't play out as either he or Stanley could have predicted.

The film does some interesting things with its characters. Initially, Stanley looks like he's going to be the kind of vile, hard-assed villain that Ray Winstone plays so well. As it turns out, however, he is oddly sympathetic - a tough guy who is more concerned with meting out justice than pacifying the crowd with scapegoats. Charlie is not your typical instrument of vengeance. He's a conflicted man who is torn between doing what's right and remaining loyal to his family. Arthur, despite being guilty of horrible crimes, is developed as a product of his environment. (Darwin is referenced explicitly.) Even some of the secondary characters, such as John Hurt's bounty hunter and Emily Watson's transplanted Englishwoman (Stanley's wife), are fascinating.

The film is awash in dirt. There's not a lot of spare water in this territory and it shows. Everyone is dirty. When men gather in the street to watch a flogging, we see hundreds of flies crawling all over their clothing. The flogging is the most brutal of its kind this side of The Passion of the Christ, with the telling moment coming when the flogger wrings the blood from his instrument. It's one of those images that will have even hardened gore-lovers flinching. There's nothing pretty about the look of The Proposition, and its visual griminess reflects the souls of its characters.

The director is John Hillcoat, an Aussie with a handful of mostly-video efforts to his credit. The writer is musician Nick Cave. Cave is also the film's co-composer, although I'm not convinced that his discordant score serves the production well. It's unconventional for a Western, and I found it to be more irritating and distracting than effective. In this case, Cave's work as a screenwriter trumps his work as a music-maker.

The strength of The Proposition is its relentless moral ambiguity. Characters that would be heroic in more conventional movies show their darker sides, and the blackguards are given lighter, less ominous shades. It comes down to survival and justice. In a harsh land where so many are fighting to attain the former, is the latter an unreachable dream? And when does revenge as a means of justice cross over to become revenge as a means of survival? The Proposition may not answer these questions, but it addresses them and leaves it to the viewer to draw the conclusions. The result is as unsettling as it is compelling.

Proposition, The (Australia/United Kingdom, 2005)

Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Richard Wilson, Emily Watson, John Hurt, David Wenham
Screenplay: Nick Cave
Cinematography: BenoƮt Delhomme
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
U.S. Distributor: First Look Pictures
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1