- Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns
- Ray Winstone as Captain Morris Stanley
- Emily Watson as Martha Stanley
- Danny Huston as Arthur Burns
- David Wenham as Eden Fletcher
- John Hurt as Jellon Lamb
- Richard Wilson as Mikey Burns
Brutal, blood-soaked but also thought-provoking and strangely poetic, The Proposition is an Australian western that delves deep into the minds of its characters. Scripted by Nick Cave, of the Bad Seeds fame, the film is visually exemplary and excellently performed. If it’s a western that focuses on the characters and the repercussions of their actions, then The Proposition is the film for you.
In 1880’s Australia, English lawman Captain Stanley captures two brothers, Charlie and Mikey, of a famous band of outlaws after a brutal shootout. They are accused of the heinous murder of a colonial family, including the woman of the house. Stanley, who has his own version of justice, gives Charlie the title proposition; either he hunts down and kills his psychotic older brother Arthur or his feeble-minded younger brother Mikey will hang in the number of weeks that precede Christmas. The laconic Charlie goes in search of his brother in the arid Australian outback whilst deliberating what he will do. Meanwhile Stanley’s superior Eden Fletcher has decided to make an example of the young prisoner, which disturbs Stanley as he tries to wrestle with his conscience. The eponymous proposition will have consequences for every character involved as the film moves towards a shocking climax.
Nick Cave, best known for brooding songs about death, violent, bloody revenge and choice, fashions many of these themes into his poetic screenplay. It is as if he had written a song and extended it into celluloid. Unlike some westerns that feature constant shoot-outs, The Proposition, although violent and bloody throughout, focuses more on the choices and actions of the characters to move the story along. This is more effective as it paints a bleak and haunting portrait of a lawless time in which there are no easily identifiable bad guys. Cave also provides an atmospheric music score that compliments the long-lasting consequences of fatal decisions and gives Charlie’s journey to track down Arthur an almost mystical edge. Cinematography is a key component, showing both the savage and unforgiving state of the town and the arid beauty of the outback, sometimes at the same time. A fine cast of actors flesh out Cave’s challenging characters, with Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Emily Watson making the biggest impacts. As Charlie, Pearce exudes weariness at his difficult proposition, although he doesn’t share much love for his older brother, he still struggles to decide whether to kill him or save his other sibling in a strange Cain and Abel way. As Stanley, the lawman who is by turns violent and kind, Ray Winstone reveals new-found depths as an actor that make his character interesting to watch. As one of the few women in the picture, Emily Watson is reliable as ever as Stanley’s wife Martha, who is delicate and haunted by the murder of her friend. It is she who brings out the kinder side to Stanley but also shocked and repulsed by the lawlessness surrounding her. Watson delivers a powerful monologue that speaks of her dreams of her dead friend that is so poignant and poetic, mainly because of her faultless phrasing and delivery. In supporting roles, Danny Huston as the psychopathic Arthur and John Hurt as a drunken bounty hunter, both imbue their characters with unstable menace that is very disquieting.
As I mentioned earlier, the film is quite violent in parts, especially when Mikey is brutally lashed, so be warned if you are squeamish. But if you can handle it you shouldn’t miss this revenge riddled western that paints a brutal picture of crime and lawlessness and is scripted and acted to a high standard.