Judge Ryan Keefer says you need to see this film, or he's coming over and moving in. Oh yeah, he doesn't flush the toilets or change the towels, so there's your proposition.
This land will be civilized.
Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that the Western film, by and large, is a dead genre. A vein of gold no longer worth mining. Enter writer Nick Cave (former singer of The Birthday Party and frontman of the Bad Seeds) and director John Hillcoat (To Have and to Hold), who made The Proposition, a compelling story set in the Australian west. So as the film was released, it appeared on several top ten lists and celebrated in the lineage of already accomplished Western auteurs as Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. So is the celebration justified?
Facts of the Case
Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, Memento) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson, 48 Shades) are captured in a shootout in a brothel that takes the life of Brian O'Leary (Noah Taylor, Almost Famous), who I wanted to mention so I could get all the famous Aussie actors in. Charlie is given an offer by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone, The Departed). Mikey will remain under arrest and imprisonment for a week or so, until Charlie returns with his brother Arthur (Danny Huston, Birth). When Charlie brings in Arthur, Charlie will be pardoned and Arthur freed. If it doesn't happen, Mikey will be hung.
So Charlie is sent out into the Outback to find Arthur. Morris brings Mikey into town and puts him in jail, all while trying to keep a veil of discretion over what the reviled Burns brothers did to Mr. and Mrs. Hopkins and their two children (one of which was still in the womb). One of the reasons for this is because Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves) was one of Mrs. Hopkins' friends, she curiously wants to know what happened, but her husband doesn't want her to know. Not only does he want to civilize the town and protect them from these barbaric actions, but his boss Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) also wants to wage a battle to presumably eradicate the aborigines from the land the whites have inhabited.
I came into watching The Proposition blind, or at the very least, cold like the other side of the pillow. I knew that Cave had done the writing (and presumably the score), so that intrigued me, but I also heard that the film was a little gruesome. And yes, it's a bit hairy in parts. However I want to approach it this way; the violence is set to be realistic for the most part. Sometimes when someone gets hit in the head with a bullet, realistic things happen, right? It's not like Scorsese is vilified with every arterial spray he puts onto film. And I'd never seen someone impaled with a spear like I had seen it done in The Proposition. However, one of the key scenes in the film involves some violence, but it's done to show that even under conditions that are excessive, even a crowd with the largest sense of blood will usually soften at the sight of what they've reaped. Some of them even may be aware of what's in store afterward, like a fellow Australian actor once said, they had probably unleashed hell at that point.
While many have said the film does an excellent job of blurring the morality lines among the characters, it's the familial relationships that really stand out among everyone, no matter what side of the law they may be on. The relationship between Charlie and Mikey is very clearly a father-son dynamic. Mikey hardly seems the type of person to commit the crimes he's accused of, and Charlie wishes to protect his brother. The Arthur-Charlie dynamic is more on the same level, as Huston portrays Arthur as one who can quote literature at the drop of a hat, but seems to have a primeval switch that he can turn on and off that transforms him into a savage.
More intriguing to me was the relationship between Morris and his wife. Winstone has been dispatched for the job of "civilizing" the land, and doesn't wish to include Martha in any of his actions, so much so that he periodically reminds her not to come by the police station after she surprises him one day. She shouldn't be able to see the kind of horrific things that go on, and doesn't want to tell her about Mrs. Hopkins' death, and he carries this burden with him through the film. You see it in every line of his face until the popular opinion wears him down. Mr. Fletcher (and eventually Martha) is the final blow for him, and when the town exacts a measure of punishment, it's almost as if the burden has lifted from him. He's still on edge, of course, but his stoicism and his solitude have melted away, and afterwards, he relates to Martha like he hadn't had a chance to before.
The film itself is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen (First Look Studio's DVD case labels it as a 1.85:1 anamorphic job, thus betraying you from the jump) and really, that is the only way the Australian Outback could have been shot. The sunsets are beautiful, the landscapes are breathtaking and the film looks great. The sound options for the film are just as impressive, with a choice of a DTS and Dolby Digital surround track. The first scene shocks you out of your shoes, as there's enough power and surround activity to put you in the middle of the room. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' music has never sounded better, and makes me want to dust off my Birthday Party albums to listen to Nick's old stuff. If there's a downside, it's that the dialogue sounds a little too soft, which, if you compensate and turn up your receiver, will scare the beejeezus out of you when you get into an action sequence. But no one was home when I watched this, so I didn't care.
The supplemental material is pretty ample on this feature. Starting off, there's a commentary with Hillcoat and Cave that's not too bad. Hillcoat gets into some detail about how he wanted to make the period as authentic as possible and provides a bit of information about the story. Cave is clearly the lower key participant of the track, talking about the music he pulled together for the film, and although Hillcoat is active throughout, he's monotone in vocal inflection. He discusses technical and historical choices that he made for the film to boot. It's a dry but informative track which gets a little looser near the end. The supplemental material doesn't stop there, as there are 12 minutes of deleted scenes that are included. The most notable of them introduces a surviving member of the Hopkins family as some sort of consultant or emotional tool for Stanley's decisions (or even the audience's). But the film proves it's better to leave him out of it. The behind the scenes featurettes are broken down into five areas. The "Making Of" section runs about a half hour and covers a lot of the undertones of British émigrés to Australia, with musings on this theme by the cast and crew of the film. Hillcoat and Cave discuss how the film's origins were created, and from there, the cast discuss the characters they portray in the film. From there, the discussion about the production follows, mainly the location ("oppressive" isn't a strong enough word to describe the heat), along with an interesting wrap-up on the accuracy on the treatment of the aborigines during the times. Next is the "Info and Script" section which provides even more information on how the film came together and what cast's first thoughts about it, even if some of those thoughts are recycled somewhat from other pieces. The "Characters" section covers more of the same ground (actors talking about the roles they play), and each of the preceding sections is about ten minutes long. The "Research & History" section features some recollections by the aboriginal actors, but also discusses the urge for historical accuracy in the film, while the "Themes" section focuses on the messages in the film that Hillcoat and Cave wanted to convey. You get a stills gallery and some previews (which are unrelated to the film) that round out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's easy to say that The Proposition is the best Western since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. How many other top shelf films in the genre have come out? Anyone? No, Texas Rangers doesn't count. Many people probably haven't seen this film and fewer might want to because it's a Western, but I wholeheartedly encourage you to seek this out. So much for impartiality.
The Proposition is one of the best films in recent memory and takes its rightful place as a linear descendant of the Peckinpah Westerns. The performances (especially Winstone's) are all excellent, the story is fantastic, and the film is so raw and emotionally gripping, that you'll think about it long after you've finished seeing it. I look forward to the next Hillcoat/Cave collaboration.
Not guilty. Spare the flogging and send the accused on their way, the court wants no part of the Burns brothers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Look Pictures
• Commentary with Director John Hillcoat and Writer Nick Cave
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