The Proposition

I watched a Western this week that expanded my definition of Western. I always though they were movies that took place in the West, specifically the American West, in the nineteenth century. Possible elements include cowboys, gunslingers, gamblers, pretty gals, stagecoaches and American Indians. Horses and guns are mandatory as is some sort of conflict. The conflict usually results in a great deal of gunfire at some point but not always. The Western I watched this week had the gunplay, the horses and conflict between a sheriff figure and outlaw figures but it took place in a different spot; namely Australia.

The Proposition starts out with a ferocious gun battle, with several people trapped in a flimsy building while a barrage of bullets fly through the walls like popcorn in the kettle. Our perspective is from the point of the view of those under siege, which automatically makes us sympathize with them, but when the battle is over we discover the man in charge outside is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who isn't exactly a sheriff but is as close to the law as anything else this pitiless land has to offer.

Captain Stanley is there to capture the Burns brothers gang, who have committed an act so vile it cannot be discussed in polite society. While he succeeds in imprisoning Charley Burns (Guy Pearce) and his daft little brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), Arthur (Danny Huston) is the one Captain Stanley really wants. Captain Stanley offers Charley a deal; either the Captain hangs Mikey or Charley can hunt his brother Arthur down and kill him. If he succeeds the Captain will let the two brothers go free.

What a grim choice that is; kill one brother or watch the other die then die yourself. But this is a grim film, harsh, stark and violent, as though the movie is a metaphor for the outback, or at least man's fear of the outback. This movie is so hyper real that it has a nightmarish, dreamlike quality. There is one scene in particular where the people that live in the little town have come to demand justice in the form of Mikey's death and the camera pans over the faces and backs of these townspeople, who look like they just stepped out of photographs taken in the 1880's. Bugs light on the backs of them as they stand and watch, with vacuous expressions, adding another chilling element to the scene.

There are other elements that make this film hard to watch. It takes place at a time when racial based degradation and murder race wasn't just acceptable, it was, perhaps, expected. At one point Captain Stanley is chastised by the mayor for releasing Indigenous Australian men brought down from the hills. He is told in the future he'd better kill all of them. The treatment of the native peoples is appalling, so much so that the movie comes with a warning at the very beginning. The warning also states that images of deceased Aboriginal peoples will be shown; something that is taboo as looking at photographs or films of the dead disturbs their rest. This is a reference to the historical photographs that are shown at the beginning of the film, which are fascinating in their own right. Many of the Caucasians shown look blank and empty, husks of living people. They look as though the blazing sun has sucked them dry, taking their very souls.

If this movie is so grim and violent and portrays awful people, why in the world would you want to watch it? It's compelling and engaging and all those other things that make a good film. There's a curious frightening beauty in many of the shots, which contributes to the feeling you've wandered into a painting by someone like John Jude Palencar. Lighting is incredible in this film, whether we're looking at a blazing orange sunset or the play of shadows in a tense scene or looking once again at the relentless sun. My hat goes off to the makeup and hair crew who have done a stellar job making the actors look filthy, greasy and as though they're suffering from some terrible vitamin deficiency. They could just as easily be living in some post apocalyptic world as in the Australia of 130 years ago. All that's missing are the blue zombies.

The acting is spot on, often painful to watch, but in the best possible way. Usually when we say it's painful to watch an actor we mean their performance is so dreadful it hurts and embarrasses us to see it, but in this case I mean it's so good that the horrible things that are happening to the actors are so believable that I could hardly bear to watch them.

But all of that aside, the story is enough to keep the audience rooted to their seats. Not only do we want to know what choice Charley is going to make we want to know how it's going to play out. If he goes after Arthur will he succeed? Will he able to live with his choices? Can he trust Captain Stanley to keep his word? The most basic question we ask about a story is "And then what happened?" This film will keep you asking that question from the very beginning until the final moments.

One-Paragraph Review
This week's one-paragraph review is from Chris who recently discovered Kinder Park in Maryland. Chris says, "Kinder Park in Anne Arundel county is my love. If you can find the bamboo shrouded lake you are in for a treat but there is much more to be discovered than I have in my weeks of exploration. It is big and beautiful. There are horsies too and a big fox and a kids' playground and a bathroom and Frisbee golf and a farm where you can buy animal trading cards. Maybe you should buy a season pass." Do you have a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me for consideration. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.