With John Hillcoat’s The Proposition one is faced with a curious dilemma. The film is certainly well made. It’s weirdly compelling. There’s a great deal of evident artistry in both Hillcoat’s direction and Nick Cave’s screenplay. Plus, there are several noteworthy performances. But having said all that, the film is also unregenerately unpleasant — to an alarming degree.
I’d have no problem with that if it served some larger purpose; if it made some point. And I suppose it’s possible that there is some larger point, but what it is — other than to depict early Australia as a hell on Earth where the settlers don’t deserve much better than their surroundings — escapes me. In the end, it feels like Nihilism for Newcomers or maybe Sartre With Six-Shooters.
Although The Proposition most nearly qualifies as a western — despite its setting — it plays more like a horror film. The whiskey-soaked subordinate bad guy with a penchant for working bits of Wordsworth into his conversation, Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), has a corpse (called “Danny Boy”) he keeps around for company — something that’s straight out of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Lamb’s character feels inspired by the Charles Dickens-loving madman in Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust, but the trappings are pure exploitation horror.
The storyline is fairly standard western material. Lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast) manages to capture two of the notorious Burns Gang — Charlie (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Mike (Australian TV actor Richard Wilson) — in a shoot-out. Since they’re wanted for a particularly heinous crime — the brutal massacre of an entire family — it’s a pretty big coup, but Stanley is after bigger game. He wants the head of the gang, Arthur (Danny Huston, The Constant Gardener). Threatening to hang the simple-minded Mike on Christmas Day, he makes Charlie the titular proposition — bring him Arthur and he won’t hang the kid.
Thus begins Charlie’s Conrad-esque (Heart of Darkness hangs heavily over it all) quest into the furthest reaches of the outback to an area even the Aborigines refuse to go. While this is going on, Stanley finds himself less and less in control of the situation back in what passes for civilization with public and political pressure for some measure of vengeance for the massacre. That — and a fairly predictable, yet gut-wrenching showdown on Christmas Day — is about all there is.
What makes the film distinctive — apart from its unflinching violence — are the characterizations and the performances. Danny Huston’s Arthur Burns may be little more than a Down Under variant on Conrad’s Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, but it’s a fascinating variant. There’s little sense of him having been turned into a monster — a la Kurtz — than the feeling that he was born this way — an overly intelligent poet of perversity. The real surprise here is Huston’s layered and terrifying performance. A normally constrained actor, Huston fully gives himself over to the role and the results are striking to say the least.
There’s also a sometimes engaging strain of exceedingly black comedy in the film. It takes someone less sunk in moral depravity than I not to laugh at Lamb complaining that someone left “Danny Boy” out in the sun, or to hear the sociopathic Arthur explaining that he and his brothers aren’t misanthropes — “We’re a family.” This last claim oddly ties The Proposition to Chainsaw 2, but the point is lost. Hooper’s horror film was a slap in the face of Reaganic “family values,” standing the image of such on its head. The Proposition does much of the same, but there’s no clear target for the satire, so it becomes just so much black comic nastiness.
The ending of the film — the Christmas showdown — is certainly effective as one of the most brutal pieces of cinema I can recall, but once more to what end? You may find one. I didn’t. It was finally nastiness for its own sake — brilliant, but sick-making. Rated R for strong grisly violence and for language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke