Cave's Outlaw Deals with a Bad Seed
As someone who loves westerns and watched more than I care to remember I can honestly say that I have never watched one like "The Proposition" and not just because it is set in the Australian Outback. There maybe some familiar characters, the outlaws, the law, the dodgy mayor and so on but they are anything but the cliche characters that fill most westerns. And there is a rawness to "The Proposition" as well, an unrelenting sun baked outback, dirt and flies everywhere and characters that look filthy and sweaty. It makes for a visual experience which is as far away from a Hollywood western as you can get and whilst there are the familiar character types the actual storyline is different and surprisingly brutal. As such "The Proposition" is on one hand a surprisingly good western but then on the other a western which takes time to get use to when you are only use to the more traditional westerns.
It's the late 19th century in the Australian Outback and Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone - Sexy Beast) has been employed to hunt down the Burns brothers following their brutal attack on a farm where a pregnant woman was raped and then the entire family murdered. Knowing that Arthur Burns (Danny Huston - The Aviator), the eldest brother, is the leader, Stanley offers Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce - Memento) a deal having caught him and his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson). Stanley wants Charlie to track down and kill Arthur and in return he will get a pardon and his younger brother Mike won't end up on the gallows.
One of the first things which grabs you about "The Proposition" is the originality of the storyline or at least the fact for a western it doesn't use one of the popular standards. It may start out on an almost standard track as we have a lawman hunting down a band of criminal brothers and the stunning gun fight as Captain Stanley arrests Mike and Charlie Burns, but it immediately makes you pay attention with a brutal energy which shocks. But get past this intro and then "The Proposition" becomes a different beast as we watch Charlie going after his older, more evil brother in order to save his younger brother from going to the gallows. It makes a far more interesting proposition than just trading on something standard and it makes you wonder whether Charlie will track down and kill his brother Arthur or end up returning to help Mike escape.
And that is not the only thing which feels and looks different about "The Proposition" as whilst we have the traditional characters such as the corrupt mayor, he's not corrupt in the normal sense, rather one who has opposing views to Captain Stanley and is almost slimy in expressing them. Even when Charlie catches up to his brother Arthur there are still more twists and in a classy series of parallel scenes we watch him with his brother and gang whilst back at the jail we watch Mike being flogged in what is a shockingly brutal scene, which then in itself twists the story.
And that is one of the things about "The Proposition" it is brutal and shocking. That scene which sees Mike getting flogged is not only visually but also audibly painful as you feel the impact of every lashing. And that shocking element continues through out as director John Hillcoat never shies away from delivering a surprising brutal act of violence. Indeed the culmination of the movie has one of the most shocking series of scenes I have seen in a western and you begin to wonder how far he will go in delivering the brutality of it. Add to this the miserable landscape, the fly infested, dirty sun baked outback and you have a movie which looks like no other western I have seen, not even those of Sergio Leone.
But the cleverest thing about all of this is that you never know who to champion. Do we champion Captain Stanley, so brilliantly played by Ray Winstone, as he is a lawman but his methods seem dirty, dubious and quite brutal when it comes to violence. But then do we champion Charlie Burns, equally brilliantly played by Guy Pearce, yes he's a criminal but maybe he has realised that his brother's violent campaigns must come to an end. And as the story unwinds and we watch these characters develop we are constantly switching allegiances and it works.
In fact so good are Winstone and Pearce's performances, with Winston delivering one of the most intriguing characters I have watched in a western that the rest of the cast barely get a look in. And so whilst "The Proposition" also features Danny Huston, John Hurt and Emily Watson you end up forgetting all about them.
What this all boils down to is that "The Proposition" is a surprisingly good western and vastly different to those which have filled the big screens for many years. Whilst the character types maybe familiar the storyline most certainly isn't and with a visual bleakness and one brutal shock after another "The Proposition" is a movie which grabs your attention through its unique look whilst drawing you in to a storyline which has a wonderful element of ambiguity about it. It is vastly different to normal westerns and for those who have only ever watched Hollywood westerns may find is hard going but it is certainly worth a watch.