The Proposition Review
Shots are fired outside of a tin shack in the Australian outback, the bullets easily penetrating the thin corrugated metal and sinking into the flesh of the whores therein. As the dust settles, the women and two men lie dead in their makeshift beds, which are no more than mattresses lying in the dust, their blood flowing into the cracks in the ground. Above them stand two men, Charlie and Mikey Burns (Guy Pearce and Richard Wilson), two members of the gang that bears their name and who are themselves bleeding from wounds. As the door of the shack opens, Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a deal - find and kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and Mikey will be spared the hangman's noose. Nine days he will be allowed and if he does not return, Mikey will hang from the gallows the day after Christmas.
Riding out of town, Charlie stops at the homestead of the Hopkins family, where Arthur and the rest of the Burns gang raped and murdered the pregnant Eliza Hopkins and shot dead her husband and young child. He sees the crib in which the baby would have been placed and the three white crosses that poke out of the rust-coloured ground. Stopping to pay his respects, he checks his gun and the bullets within it, questioning which, if any, is destined for his older brother. Underneath the starlight, Charlie wonders if he has it within him, those doubts growing as he gets closer to Arthur in a land so lawless and so far from God that no one but the near dead will go there....
There is a theological argument that states that this world in which we live, contrary to what Christianity has taught us, is Hell itself. Not the Hell of pitchforks, fire and brimstone but that which suffers from an absence of God. Our last glimpse of Heaven as amidst the paradise of the Garden of Eden wherein God and Adam spoke to one another before, having committed the gravest of sins, he and his wife Eve were banished into the wilderness with cherubim and a flaming sword to keep the way, as the Book of Genesis describes it, of the tree of life. And once in that wilderness, the fall of man was swift with Cain murdering his brother Abel, the blood that was spilt as much a stain on mankind as Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit from the tree of life.
Never is this impression of our life on this earth clearer than in The Proposition, set in an Australia that God has long abandoned. The characters even say as much, with Ray Winstone asking himself, "Australia...what fresh hell is this?", his weary looking out over the desert capturing how artists have always portrayed the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were cast. The blackened, dying trees, the thorns, the heat and the dust and, above all else, the flies that turn the air black, all of these have been used to describe the horrors that awaited Adam and, again, they are what the cast of The Proposition exist within. Unsurprisingly, they each create their own Gardens of Eden within the outback, Captain and Martha Stanley (Ray Winstone and Emily Watson) tend to a little rose garden in the desert and place a beautifully decorated Christmas tree in their living room. Arthur Burns, despite living in a cave papered with pages from his books and sat amongst dog shit and pistols, brings a small part of his homeland of Ireland with him with the singing of such folk songs as Peggy Gordon.
But no matter how much the cast hide themselves away, the hellish landscape intrudes on their lives, never more so than when the perfect idyll that the Stanleys have built for themselves comes crashing down as the Burns gang make their return from the outback. Captain Stanley seeks to protect his wife from the lawlessness of the outback by creating an oasis of Victorianism in the Australian desert. Tea is served in the afternoon and Martha dresses in the finest material that London can send their way but, outside of the home, Captain Stanley senses the dangers that lurk in their new home and is something of a weary presence in his own house. His inability to make love to his wife betrays the horrors that he keeps from her and his lack of openness. Similarly, Charlie Burns hides Mikey's imprisonment and death sentence from Arthur by telling him how their younger brother has met a girl, Molly O'Boyle, and has settled down. "Molly O'Boyle", says Arthur, "a red-headed colleen, no doubt." Even their lies reveal their longing for home, some thousands of miles from the land in which they find themselves.
The cast assembled by director John Hillcoat are terrific, with Danny Huston, so long a rather ordinary presence in previous roles, being something of a revelation here. Sad-eyed but with an anger that is shocking, his Arthur Burns lives up to the reputation Captain Stanley lays out before us. However, as good as Huston, John Hurt (as Jellon Lamb), Ray Winstone and Emily Watson are, it's Guy Pearce that has the standout part and performance. Showing that he is often in complete command of his role, Pearce says very little but reveals his charm, ruthlessness and sadness in his eyes and in the manner in which he carries himself through the desert, his a gaunt figure in a vast landscape.
One ought not to be surprised, though, when the crime of Cain is visited once again on Pearce's Charlie Burns, his destiny being the murder of a brother. True to Cave's form in The Birthday Party and with The Bad Seeds, there's much Old Testament vengeance and betrayal in The Proposition. The film's plotting isn't exactly a surprise but there are moments that are outrageously good, such as the public flogging of Mikey Burns that sees his blood being wrung from the whip into the sands or the raid on a police scout by Arthur Burns and his gang that's a riot of sharp angles, bloody executions and murder. Lawless as Arthur Burns is, the moment his gang ride out in revenge is a thrilling sight whilst the ending, quiet though it is, is a wonderful piece of filmmaking. After the bloodshed, the stark loneliness of the desert and such guilt as to want to murder once again, the setting sun, itself a metaphor for these times passed. And beautiful though it is, there is no sense of this being a paradise, the trail of blood in the sand a stark reminder of not only the lawlessness but also the godlessness a colony far removed from the pleasant memories of home.
Though often very good, particularly in its sometimes stunning photography of the Australian landscapes, Tartan's transfer of The Proposition can sometimes look very ordinary, as if it will never offer anything unexpected. However, much as it is often like that, it also has the power to surprise its audience with its handling of some remarkable-looking views of the Australian outback, possible never better than in a perfectly focused view of Guy Pearce against a night sky in which its possible to pick out even the smallest of stars. In those times, The Proposition looks wonderful but it is, at other times, simply up to the job and no better than that.
As with other releases, Tartan not only offer two variants of Dolby Digital, DD2.0 and DD5.1, but also a DTS surround track, which is clearly the optimum choice if you have the option. This is a terrific-sounding film with an attention to detail in the mix that allows the faintest of ambient sounds to be heard whilst also ensuring that the thunder of horses' hooves remains equally clear. In particular, scenes such as the opening shootout make obvious use of the rear channels and do so impressively.
Commentary: Director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave come together on a track recorded for this release, which begins by explaining the opening disclaimer and describes in no small amount of detail the exhausting shoot and the difficulties they had in bringing Cave's script to the screen. Hillcoat is very talkative, which is useful as Cave, for the first thirty minutes or so, says very little but once the film begins to hit its stride, it becomes more of a conversation between the two and their contributions get a whole lot better.
The Making of The Proposition (27m11s): Much shorter than the 118m that it lists on the back of the DVD case, this was shot during production and features interviews with the cast, writer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat on the subjects of Australia, the making of the film and, where relevant, their own characters. As one might expect, there is much time given over to the stunning landscape and its importance to the film. But what's particularly interesting is how they've given over moments of this feature to the locals to describe life in the outback as well as to actor David Gulpilil to put the history of colonisation in context as regards the indigenous population.
Meet the Cast and Crew (86m16s): There is some overlap with the Making Of feature, particularly as to how the same interviews feature in both, but this would appear to present those interviews in full. Over the near one-and-a-half hours, these sometimes choppy contributions attempt to find a common thread but it's a piece that's largely saved by its editing, sometimes jumping wildly between subjects but often striking a path through the film. John Hillcoat, even as he sits beside writer Nick Cave, actually offers a more coherent analysis of the film than the writer but it's left to Danny Huston and Guy Pearce to best explain the film via their own characters and the examples they used from history as influences. The last twenty minutes of this feature is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film.
Tartan Exclusive Interviews: There are two such interviews here, one with Guy Pearce (13m35s) and Danny Huston (7m33s), which, given the length of their contributions on the previous feature, features some overlap. With the two members of the cast being prompted through the interviews via title cards, this sees Pearce and Huston answering questions on the writing, on John Hillcoat, their favourite scene, their own roles and what traits they share with Charlie and Arthur Burns.
Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (2m10s), which is fairly ordinary as well as a small booklet written by Billy Chainsaw.
This is a stunning film with writer, director and cast finding a single voice that leaves it a bleak but quite remarkable film and, with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, The Constant Gardener, Daiteiden no Yoru ni and, yes, King Kong, amongst the best films that I've seen on DVD this year. Probably even better on DVD than in the cinemas, where the ability to watch it several times allows one to best appreciate the deliberately near-inaudible dialogue, this is a good release from Tartan and, perhaps largely for the film, ought to be celebrated as one of the major releases of the year.