The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hillcoat
Produced by Chris Brown, Chiara Menage, Jackie O’Sullivan, Cat Villiers
Written by Nick Cave
Cinematography by Benoît Delhomme
“He’s right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.”
“Is that what we are? Misanthropes?”
“Good Lord, no. We’re a family.”
The Proposition is a brutal film about a brutal period of history in a brutal place and one man’s efforts to bring civilization to it. In the Australian outback in the 1880s, law enforcement Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) captures Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson), two of three brothers who are the nucleus of a notorious, ruthless gang who raped and murdered members of a local family, seemingly just for the hell of it. Although he’s captured two of the Burns brothers, it’s the gang’s leader Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) that Capt. Stanley really wants. Stanley decides to make a deal with Charlie: if he’ll kill his brother Arthur, Stanley promises to release both Charlie and Mikey.
The locals – including Stanley’s boss Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) – think this is not only a bad idea, but an irresponsible, cowardly one. They’re out for blood and if one of the gang is sitting right there in the local jail, he needs to be dealt with; if Stanley doesn’t have the stomach for it, they certainly do. Meanwhile, Charlie’s journey to find Arthur is filled with adventures involving an old bounty hunter (the late John Hurt, above left), a hostile group of Aborigines, and an overall sense of dread – or perhaps doubt.
The Proposition is one of those movies you watch with your stomach twisted in knots, yet you can’t look away. You know something awful is probably awaiting just around the corner and you’re usually right. Roger Ebert stated “it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from. The actors invest their characters with human details all the scarier because they scarcely seem human themselves.”
Ebert also compares the film to Cormac McCarthy’s masterwork Blood Meridian, the most brutal novel I’ve ever read. Like that novel, the violence in The Proposition is not there simply for the sake of violence; it is a part of who these characters are, part of their essence. Yet it is not a part of who Stanley and his wife Martha (Emily Watson) are. In their own ways, the Stanleys are seeking to bring their own concepts of civilization to the outback. Singer/songwriter/author/screenwriter and sometimes actor Nick Cave knows these characters and with director John Hillcoat (who also directed an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2009), is able to bring them to life onscreen in a way that will linger in your mind for a long time. You hope and pray these characters won’t follow you into your dreams. What makes the film so disturbing is how it continually responds to your ideas that this is an historical depiction of evil that we’ve progressed from with a resounding, “No we haven’t.” Just pick up a newspaper or watch the news. Humanity is capable of doing some truly awful things and The Proposition refuses to let you forget it.
This film won’t be for everyone. I can’t imagine loaning this DVD to someone and having them return it, saying, “Thanks! I really enjoyed it!” The nature of evil isn’t nice. It isn’t pretty, reserved, or something you can approach lightly like dipping your toe into an elegant, temperature-controlled swimming pool. It’s brutal, unforgiving, unapologetic. If the nature of evil happens to be in a good mood, death comes swiftly. If not, may God help you. Much of the true horror of The Proposition comes in the intervals between the moment characters realize they’re going to die and when they actually do breathe their last. What would we do in such a situation? After watching the film, you pray you’ll never have to find out.
Photos: Roger Ebert, Ferdy on Films, Cinema of the World, This Distracted Globe, Rotten Tomatoes