The Proposition (R)
The Australian Outback makes the American West look like a friendly hippy commune in The Proposition, a dirty shoot-‘em-up Western that wears violence and grit like fancy cowboy duds.
There are banditos, posses and Indians here though they are refigured for our cousins down under as Irish outlaws, downtrodden officers of His Majesty and nearly-enslaved aboriginal people. And everywhere, there are black flies — about 10 minutes into the movie you feel the urge to swat away pests you’re sure are buzzing around your own face.
In many ways, the film is as simple as the deal that gives it its name. Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is caught by white hat Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). But Charlie is not caught alone — he is accompanied by his dim-witted brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). Stanley tells Charlie that he’s imprisoning Mikey but that neither man is the one he really wants. The shrimp he wants to put on the barbie is the boys’ sadistic brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Arthur is the man Stanley believes is responsible for the murder of a local family, including the pregnant wife who was raped before she was killed and who was a friend of Stanley’s wife Martha (Emily Watson).
Bring me Arthur, dead or alive, Stanley says to Charlie, and Mikey won’t hang. Assuming the morality of all the men involved, Stanley’s plan could mete out some measure of actual justice. The townsfolk, however, might not see it that way.
Everything about The Proposition is rough and brutal — we get no relief even when we start to suspect some of the men involved might actually still possess a sense of right and wrong. This man might seem well intentioned but then he acts with savagery toward natives, including women and children. That native man might seem justified in his angry actions, but then he shocks you with cruelty. Not even the perpetually worried Martha seems above occasional flashes of viciousness.
Most vicious of all, however, is the landscape — harsh and flat and arid. The tailored Victorian dresses that Martha seems to uncomfortably wear through town (uncomfortable both because of the heat and because of how they make her stand out from the hardscrabble townsfolk) seem like a perfect symbol of the civilization that the population is just barely able to hold on to.
Both symbolism and realism work here. Even when the shooting and the blood and the unrelenting flies seem like they are too much, the sensational surroundings never overtake the internal struggles of the characters which drive the movie. Simple story, hard land, smart characters — the combination creates a movie that is highly watchable even in its grimmest moments. B+
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