“Australia. What fresh hell is this?”
2006. Australia. Rated R. Directed by John Hillcoat. Written by Nick Cave. Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, John Hurt, David Wenham and Richard Wilson.
While the Western is generally thought of as a true American genre (despite the fact that Italians were responsible for some of the more iconic ones), setting a Western in the Australian Outback is such a natural fit that I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more often. There’s the same harsh environment, sense of desolation, outlaw society, and “restless natives” (and of course, the same type of ritual extermination of the natives) as found in the American Wild West in the same time period. It’s the setting for John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, which saw only a limited release in this country in 2006, which takes a pretty standard Western script and creates a solid film based mostly on the setting and good production values.
The thin, straightforward plot takes place in a small English-manned outpost where Captain Stanley (Winstone) has been dispatched to “civilize” the area. This includes breaking up the notorious Burns gang, who were responsible for the recent murder of a local family. After capturing middle brother Charlie (Pearce) and the slow youngest brother Mikey (Wilson), Stanley offers Charlie the titular proposition — freedom for him and his brother if he tracks and kills the leader of the gang, his oldest brother, the psychotic Arthur (Huston). That’s essentially it — the movie consists of Charlie’s quest to find his brother and Stanley’s struggle to keep the peace at home battling a meddling wife (Watson) and his growing realization that the least civilized people around are his own troops.
The film, written and scored by Nick Cave (yes, the musician) has a similar sensibility to the superior The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which was also scored by Cave) in its minimalistic feel and that it takes its time to tell a fairly simple story. The major difference between the films is that here the characters, outside of Stanley, are thinly sketched and fairly one-dimensional, and that is what ultimately holds the film back from being great as opposed to merely solid.
Hillcoat’s direction is quite good, and along with some great cinematography and a good score he presents a very evocative landscape and setting — it really feels like you’re there. You get a sense of the oppressive heat, the vastness of the land, the solitude of the characters and I’ve never seen more flies on actors before in any film (they get bonus points for that — if multiple flies landed on my nose during a scene, I could not stop from breaking character).
Pearce certainly looks the part but ultimately isn’t given a ton to do other than stand around and look cool, which is a shame, because he’s such a great actor. Winstone really ends up being the lead, and gives a really great performance, taking what could have been a pretty cliched character and making him quite sympathetic. Huston is quite scary and powerful in his brief screen time, a departure from other roles I’ve seen him in. Both Watson and Wenham’s characters are just so annoying and not particularly well-written. John Hurt’s character, though amusing, did not add very much. Wilson does a good job as Mikey, a really important role despite the lack of screen time.
The Proposition, while not great, is at least a different take on an old genre, not just in setting, but in the modern way the story is told, and significantly, in the depiction of the Aborigines. There are some very good scenes all the way through, and the climax is particularly effective. If you’re a Western fan, definitely check it out, while it’s not on the same level as Jesse James, it’s still worth seeing.