The second feature film written by the musician Nick Cave is a grisly, sweat-stained tale of outback violence and colonial oppression that has lost none of its power in the 16 years since its release. Directed by John Hillcoat, The Proposition is awash with striking scenery and ugly truths about Australia.
After a fierce gunfight, outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mike (Richard Wilson) are captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Although both brothers are former members of the notorious Burns gang, Stanley’s real target is their sadistic older sibling Arthur (Danny Huston), who is wanted for the brutal murder of a local family.
With no lead on Arthur, Stanley turns to more “inventive” methods, offering Charlie a proposition. He will release Charlie, while Mike will hang in nine days for the crimes of the Burns gang. But both will be pardoned if Charlie can locate and kill Arthur. Mike is naive and not able to mentally comprehend their situation, so Charlie feels he has no choice but to protect his younger brother and accept Stanley’s deal.
Cave’s script presents a compelling dilemma for our antihero and a nuanced view of characters who don’t fit into pigeonholes of “good” or “bad”. In so doing, The Proposition is able to make a much bigger point about the realities of life during colonial rule in the 1880s.
Stanley’s mandate is to “civilise” the country but we need only see him wearing a heavy woollen coat in 40C heat, sweat running down his face, to understand the absurdity of transposing a British way of life on to a land where it will not fit. Just like the fake snow his wife Martha (Emily Watson) orders for Christmas, it is all artifice.
The captain views the country as something to be conquered. “Australia, what fresh hell is this?” he opines, while the Burns gang view nature as a salve, hiding out in remote caves and stopping to appreciate the beauty of a sunset … before embarking on a killing spree.
The colonial settlers’ “civility” certainly doesn’t apply to treatment of the local Aboriginal people, who are exploited as servants or massacred in response to perceived injustices. Meanwhile, Martha is left to rattle around an empty house on her own lest she come to town to be objectified by Stanley’s men or patronised by town officials.
Whether depicting horror or beauty, The Proposition is visually arresting. The violence is staged with wince-inducing authenticity, in stark contrast to the beauty of the cinematography, with languid views of dusky horizons and parched panoramas.
The core cast – Pearce, Winstone, Huston and Watson – are exceptional, complemented by a supporting cast featuring John Hurt as a scene-stealing bounty hunter, David Wenham as a prim but odious town official and David Gulpilil as a tracker on the trail of the Burns gang. Tom E Lewis (Balang Lewis) – who compared the intensity of The Proposition to that of his acclaimed debut, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith – is also noteworthy as gang member Two Bob.
The Proposition was not Cave and Hillcoat’s first collaboration. They worked together on 1988’s dystopian prison drama Ghosts … of the Civil Dead as well as the soundtrack to Hillcoat’s second feature, To Have and to Hold, and the video for Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ Babe, I’m On Fire.
The Proposition’s score is a collaboration between Cave and Warren Ellis and is as integral as any character. Raspy vocals and screeching strings provide the perfect sonic anxiety to the chases and violence, while melancholy violin and piano accompany shots of stunning horizons and characters awaiting inexorable confrontations.
At heart The Proposition is a savage yet utterly compelling story. Its gritty, uniquely Australian take on the western deserves to be recognised as one of the genre’s best.