04 October, 2005

munkey's-eye view: THE PROPOSITION

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD ~ This review may imply elements of The Proposition's ending.

An Australian Western that goes beyond Us and Them.

The idea of using Australia's colonial history as the setting for a Western-style film is not a new one. The first ever feature-length film is believed to be 1906's The Story of the Kelly Gang, so in fact the bushranger epic of the Australian wilderness pre-dates the cowboy epic of the American frontier.

Director John Hillcoat has fulfilled a decades-old dream by bringing The Proposition to the screen. For much of his career, he has been in search of the right story, longing to capture this country's often brutal landscape and evoke its equally brutal history. After being dissatisfied with the first comissioned screenplay - which followed too closely the standard American Western formula - Hillcoat turned to his old friend Nick Cave, who had thus far agreed only to write the score for the film.

Cave created a screenplay which abandonned the good-guys vs bad-guys, white-hats vs black-hats simplicity of the traditional Western, instead weaving a lyrical, morally ambiguous tale. The script follows structural patterns more akin to a symphony than a traditional film, and is laced with minimal, poetic dialogue.

The essential story of The Proposition is necessarily quite simple in its machanations, yet limitlessly profound in its implications. The Burns family are outlaws. Local trooper Captain Stanley manages to capture the younger two Burns brothers, and offers middle-sibling Charlie a propostion: he will grant them their freedom from certain execution, in exchange for Charlie hunting down and killing Arthur - the eldest brother and ring-leader.

Thus begins a tense journey of violent acts and moral dillemas. The Proposition is punctuated by brief bursts of brutal violence. However the real meat of the film is in the lead-up to, and aftermath of these occurences. In exploring these periods of seething unquiet and intensity, Cave and Hillcoat's film paints a grim picture of Australian history. As "civilised" society desperately tries to take hold in a barren, unforgiving place, the reality of human injustice and violence takes its inevitable toll. Meanwhile the film also has much to say about the importance of family ties, the invalidation of women in such precarious societies, and the extremely varied role of indigenous Australians, fighting both with and against the flailing but unstoppable British Empire.

The look of the film matches its gritty subject matter. Shot in the blinding light and sweltering heat of outback Queensland, the actors are consatntly drenched with real sweat, covered with real dirt, swarming with real flies. Yet despite the unmasked squalor of life as it must genuinely have been in such communites, The Proposition is a truly beautiful film. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme - on his first ever trip to Australia - captures the other-worldly overwhelmingness of the sunlight in his vast, harsh exteriors, and also lends a palpable intimacy to the smaller character moments.

The Proposition also boasts a brilliant ensemble cast including Guy Pearce, whose tightly-wound restraint perfectly suggests the internal struggle Charlie goes through in pursuing his deal with Stanley. Meanwhile Ray Winstone as the Captain displays an exquisite emotional range, while always remaining understated. Supporting turns from Emily Watson, John Hurt, David Wenham and Richard Wilson are all flawless.

While essentially a portrait of a communtiy in ruin and barely-contained despair, there is also warmth in The Proposition. The relationship between Captain Stanley and his wife Martha (Watson) displays genuine tenderness despite the utter hopelessness of its circumstances. The love between Charlie and his simpleton younger brother Mikey (Wilson) is also very real, and the unexpressed emotion when Charlie ultimately proves unable to save Mikey is deeply moving. In the film's conclusion, there can be little redemption for the terrible acts we have seen carried out - any such redemption would serve only to undermine the gravity of what has gone before. However there is character resolution in Charlie's final actions. Stanley's proposition has predictably ended in tragedy for all. Charlie's actions eventually arise not from any deal or bargain, but from what he knows is the right thing to do, hopefully bringing an end to the cycle of needless carnage that has wracked his family and its community.

(out of 5)

Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns in The Proposition.