I keep coming back to the flies. There are many stirring and memorable things about The Proposition
, director John Hillcoat's brutal Australian Western, but the flies made the most potent impression. Maybe this is because they're everywhere; most if not all of the scenes in the film feature the omnipresent buzzing of hundreds of hungry flies. Whether indoors or outdoors, moving or standing still, it matters not - they're there. Their presence is inevitable in the sweltering outback wasteland in which The Proposition
is set, and that sense of suffocating inevitability is key to the film's success.
The scenario of The Proposition
is as compelling as it is simple. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is part of an outlaw gang wanted in connection with the vicious murder of a family. At the picture's start, loses a shootout with the authorities. He's arrested, along with his beloved younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson), by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Stanley has bigger fish on his mind, though, and to that end he makes Charlie an offer. Charlie will be allowed to go free, but he has to return within nine days with his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the gang's ringleader, in tow. If he does this, he and Mike will be pardoned; if not, Mike will be hanged. Either way, one of Charlie's brothers will be dead by Christmas Day. Can he sacrifice one to save the other?
The idea of brother against brother is the stuff of legends. Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave are aware of this; thus, they go for a stripped-down approach in telling the story. There's very little in the way of psychology or explanation - The Proposition
works in the arena of the mythic, not the realistic. This streamlines the film's storytelling, but it also does leave the film with one big weakness.
Being that the actors are being asked to portray types rather than characters, a strong actor is needed in the lead, one who can convey worlds of information while saying very little. Huston, Winstone and John Hurt are all actors like that and offer strong support. Guy Pearce, I'd have thought, would have been an actor like that as well. Unfortunately, he doesn't do much with what he's given, which leaves Charlie (the ostensible lead) feeling like the writer's construct that he is. He's not a character, he's a vessel with which to move the plot forward. This hollowness at the film's center, coupled with the storytelling technique (which favors texture over incidence), results in a certain aimlessness.
Fortunately, there's plenty of stuff on the sides to compensate for the hole in the middle. The supporting cast is a gritty gallery of grotesques. Huston's economical turn as the fierce and fiercely protective Arthur is a gem; he shows us a man who is capable of both great cruelty and great love without making it feel contradictory. Hurt only shows up in a couple of scenes as a verbose bounty hunter, but his funny and pungent performance demonstrates once again why he's one of the finest actors in the business. Emily Watson, too, adds her usual combination of confidence and tremulance as Martha, Captain Stanley's wife. (Watson should be in everything.)
And then there's Winstone. His Captain Stanley, far from being the expected hateful authority figure, is a rational man trying to do the right thing and yet realizing that he's hopelessly overwhelmed. Peering out onto the desolation of the desert, he exclaims, "Oh, what fresh hell is this!" and the subsequent story bears this out - The Proposition
sees Stanley trapped in a hell that is partly his own doing and partly circumstance. He asserts his control early on ("I will civilize this country"), but it's not long before things slip from his grasp. Note especially the scene where he's upbraided by Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his superior, for allowing Pearce to go free. He starts on equal footing, but by the scene's end he's been reduced to a dumbstruck child, unable to do much more than whimper for the destruction of his pride and all he thought was right. Pearce may be the lead, but I hope I'm forgiven for seeing the story as being essentially about Winstone.
Part of Stanley's downfall can be attributed to his desire to civilize the outback and his willingness to strike deals with devils to do so. Hillcoat's portrayal of the land to which Stanley wishes to bring order is the most striking thing about The Proposition
. The landscape of the Australian desert is as important a character as any of the damaged souls wandering through it. As photographed by Hillcoat and cinemaphotographer Benoit Delhomme, it's beautiful yet hostile, recognizable yet alien and ultimately indifferent to humankind. Scorched and sun-blasted, it's the kind of place where awful, violent things are bound to happen.
And happen they do, but when the promise of violence pays out, it's not in any sort of satisfying or thrilling way. The violence in The Proposition
is borne of an offhand ugliness. It all loops back to the idea of inevitability: None of the murderous acts are dwelled upon because these things are bound to happen. All systems in nature are entropic, all good intentions will collapse and all of us will eventually meet our end. As the film spirals towards the ending that is must possess, the horror inherent in the story (what would you do with such a choice?) gives way to a deep and crushing sadness (what to make of a world where such choices exist?). The final shot shows two characters sitting motionless in front of an achingly gorgeous sunset as one asks the other, "What're you gonna do now?" The answer goes unspoken, but it rings clear anyway: Sit here and wait for the flies to come take me like everyone else.