No Rules, Just Right
The Proposition (2005): 8 out of 10: An Australian western taking place in the Outback in the 1880s. The Proposition mixes your standard bushranger action film with social commentary on the civilizing of the Outback (Particularly by the Victorian British) and the treatment and slaughter of rebellious Aborigines.
The tale starts with the rape, murder, and immolation of the Hopkins family who were good friends of the local sheriff (Ray Winstone) and his delicate wife (Emily Watson). The sheriff captures two of the suspected gang members (a ridiculously skinny Guy Pearce and his half-wit brother Richard Wilson) and makes Pearce a proposition. If he goes out and kills the gang ringleader, who is his older brother (Danny Huston), the ringleader of the gang before Christmas, both he and his younger brother will get a pardon. If he fails, the younger brother will hang.
The Good: Honestly, I would recommend this film on the cinematography and soundtrack alone.
The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is spot on gorgeous. Rarely have I seen full moons or sunsets work so well on film. Kudos to the location scout for some of the most beautiful vistas in the outback in any one movie. Unlike, say 2017’s Hostiles, the scenery porn never feels forced or unnatural.
Soundtracks are a hard thing to praise in print, so just let me say Nick Cave (Who also wrote the film) has the perfect sense never to overwhelm the movie with sound but to allow it to be a disturbing undercurrent throughout the proceedings. Like the cinematography, it sets the table without ever feeling forced.
As someone who has sat through a couple of westerns in the last month, I also appreciate the pace of the film. It never seems to drag, which can be an all too common malady with even the best films.
The Bad: Ray Winstone, doing his best middle-aged Russell Crowe impersonation, is very good as the lead character Sherrif Captain Stanley. It isn’t his fault that Captain Stanley is an idiot.
Captain Stanley comes from money (or perhaps his wife does, which would make sense). He has a house filled with treasures from Victorian England and, if The Piano taught me anything, that is an arduous task. He has a delicate younger wife who seems ill-suited for Australia, let alone the outback. He has a boss who couldn’t care less about his opinion as well as a bunch of deputies that neither admire nor respect him. Captain Stanley is not someone who should take a flyer.
Which brings us to the fly in the Didgeridoo, what on earth made Winstone’s character think that letting one of the two culprits go hunting the third was a good idea. He should have been hiring contractors for the scaffolding for a double Christmas hanging. Two birds in the hand vs one in the bush.
The movie gives the impression that it is based on a true story. It starts with black and white crime scene photos. The murder and rape of homesteaders sounds like a very Australian crime for the period. The main reason I was convinced it is a true story is that in fiction you rarely have your protagonist be so foolish. Being an idiot is something people in real life do all the time. Fictional protagonists need to be crafted with a bit more care.* Winstone’s captain had no motivation to offer such a deal and as we learn throughout the film, plenty of motivation not to.
The reason for that above asterisk*
Longtime astute readers who are both smart and good looking will note I often praise fictional pieces where the protagonist(s) are allowed to be box of rocks stupid. Game of Thrones is a glorious example where so many of the main characters are either self destructive or wonderful dim in a certain way. (See also my love for Friday the 13th films such as Jason X. The only brain cells on display in those films are when Jason smashes a skull open.)
All that praise aside, sometimes having your lead character be surprisingly stupid works against the narrative. In my opinion, this is one of those times.
The Ugly: There is a scene where the Aborigines are being questioned if they saw our fugitive Danny Huston up in the hills. They describe his secret cave camp and then explain how he can turn himself into a werewolf. I was so excited. Finally, a desert werewolf movie to go along with that 1995 cinematic masterpiece Werewolf. Alas, the aborigines were just pulling legs; and the rest of the film was lycanthrope free.
In Conclusion: Besides the obvious lesson of The Proposition which is don’t let the Irish into your country, I do think the film has some things to say about the taming of the wilds and the cruelty of those tamers towards both the land and its people. The lessons are a bit muddled in a story that is less a tragedy simply because it was so avoidable in the first place. The Proposition is a beautiful and well-told tale and well worth the visit out west.