The Proposition, 2005.
Directed by John Hillcoat.
Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, John Hurt, Danny Huston and David Wenham.
Australia is still an untamed country and the British colonies there are still in their infancy. Captain Stanley is the sheriff of one of them, and he is determined to have the violent criminal and gang leader Arthur Burns killed.
Captain Stanley (a magnificent Ray Winstone) opens The Proposition as a man of wealth and taste. To his new prisoners, after laying siege to the brothel in which they hid, he makes a proposition: Charlie (Guy Pierce) and the simple-minded Mikey (Richard Wilson), will be allowed to walk free if they kill their older brother, head of their notorious family gang, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). That name is a statement in itself – Arthur burns. Arthur murders and Arthur rapes. Captain Stanley is determined to civilize Australia’s wild land, and he will start by being rid of its most fearsome outlaw. He has to become the devil himself to achieve his aims, offering his two captives such an unholy deal.
Captain Stanley:I wish to present you with a proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a God-forsaken place. The blacks won’t go there, not the trackers; not even wild men. I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans, I aim to bring him down – I aim to show that he’s a man like any other. I aim to hurt him. And what will most hurt him? Well I thought long and hard about that, and I’ve realized, Mr. Burns, that I must become more inventive in my methods. Now suppose I told there was a way to save your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse, and a gun. Suppose, Mr. Burns, I was to give you and your young brother Mikey here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you a chance to expunge the guilt, beneath which you so clearly labour. Suppose I gave you ’til Christmas. Now, suppose you tell me what it is I want from you.
Charlie Burns: You want me to kill me brother.
Captain Stanley: I want you to kill your brother.
The dialogue constantly makes reference to Hell. The sparse Australian outback and visible heat could easily be mistaken for that punishing afterlife. Sweat smudges every face and dampens every garment. The hot, wavering air distorts the sun. Maybe this is what a Western set in Hell looks like.
The Proposition has the Western genre’s fundamental element – its characters are completely dwarfed and at odds with their landscape, insignificant in its vastness. “There is the sense that spaces there are too empty to admit human content. There are times in The Proposition when you think the characters might abandon their human concerns and simply flee from the land itself” (Roger Ebert). But the scenery itself is crumbling, bathed in a hellish red by the setting sun. Flies are everywhere – on faces and on food – hovering around anything living or dead. Perhaps everything in this outback is dead. The flies’ presence is as good as the stink lines drawn in cartoons.
Hidden in this land are the surviving Burns gang, their leader hunted by one brother to save another. They stress the importance of family, but they’d kill each other for fun if they had a good enough excuse. Charlie could be partly redeemed for his sins if he saves Mikey, but instead he wonders around in a half-dream. Meanwhile, the town grow restless and demand more action from Captain Stanley. There is a thin Victorian veil covering their blood thirst for revenge. They stage a lynching of their Burns prisoner, but only show they are no better than the savages that they hunt.
The final scene is set at Christmas, a cruel joke on Captain Stanley and his wife, trying their best to adjust themselves to the non-British climate. They attempt a pathetic excuse for a Christmas. The tree is grand, and the table covered in delicious foods, but there’s no hiding from the piercing Sun outside. Nor from the Burns gang, with a murderous glint in their eye.
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