The Good, the Bad and The Proposition

Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley

The Australian outback, circa 1880. Inside a weathered and rundown shack, a hail of bullets haemorrhages through the walls as a deadly gunfight unfolds.

Bushrangers Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his little brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) exchange rounds with the assaulting troopers outside, but they are easily outnumbered and quickly overpowered. The siege ended, Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone), who has recently arrived from Britain with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), interrogates Charlie about the location of his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). The beating, however, is not having the desired effect and the veteran outlaw holds his tongue, unfazed. 

Stanley, a tired, overweight and dishevelled man, stares out the cabin’s window at the strange alien frontier of his newly adopted country. He was sent to the small town Banyon for what he hoped would be a cosy assignment. What he found instead was a ‘god-forsaken’ lawless land, plagued by flies and the brutality of men. ‘Australia. What fresh hell is this?’ he asks himself. ‘I will civilize this place.’ 

He turns his attention back to Charlie: ‘I wish to present you with a proposition. I want you to kill your brother.’ In exchange, says Stanley, he will pardon them both, sparing 14-year-old Mikey from the gallows. Faced with an impossible choice, a stunned Charlie accepts the proposal and sets off across a sweltering harsh desert in search of Arthur, who is camping in the mountains with the remainder of their gang. 

Meanwhile, Captain Stanley has other problems. Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), a powerful businessman and landowner, has heard of the proposition and angrily confronts him. It turns out that Mikey has been implicated in the vicious rape of a local girl and many of the town’s residents are furious with the Captain’s decision. They want the boy publicly flogged. To make matters worse, tribes of renegade Aboriginals roam the land, pillaging and murdering. ‘Do the job I brought you here to do,’ Fletcher tells him. ‘If you have to kill one, make sure you bloody well kill them all.’ His hand forced, Stanley allows the lethal lashing of Mikey. Says Winstone:

Stanley went out to Australia on a high, looking forward to the challenge, thinking he could change [and] civilize the place and the people with the British Empire behind him. But of course the reality was somewhat different. … he makes a completely immoral suggestion, asking a man to kill his own brother … [and then] we see him being very brutal to a young boy. In contrast you see this man at home, loving his wife and being a normal human being. He has a very strong belief in what, to him, is right and wrong and believes his actions are completely justified.[1]Ray Winstone, The Proposition Press Kit, Sony Pictures, 2005, pp.12–13.

A unique and vivid portrayal of early Australian colonialism, The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005) is an anthology of agonizingly suspenseful moments and vicious confrontations, leading to a surprising and unforgettable climax.

Shot on location in Winton, northwest Queensland, the birthplace of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda, director John Hillcoat establishes the period and mood early. Utilizing the opening credits, he fills the screen with a photo montage of dead European settlers, lifeless babies still in their cribs, and Aboriginals at the mercy of white occupiers. In starting the film with such macabre images, Hillcoat taps into what D. H. Lawrence described as ‘that peculiar lost, weary aloofness … lying mysteriously within the Australian underdark.’[2]D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Bruce Steele, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002. He explores a time when the nation’s identity was forged by a displaced underclass: convicts, and notorious outlaws such as Ned Kelly, Ben Hall, John Gilbert and Dan Morgan – criminals history would later immortalize as folk heroes.

Many of the scenes resemble renowned Australian oil paintings. The heat rising from the parched ground in the mythical town of Banyon, and the depiction of human survival amidst the isolation and hardship of the red desert and its decaying terrain are reminiscent of Sidney Nolan’s Going to Work, Rising Sun Hotel (1948) and Perished (1949), or of Russell Drysdale’s Sofala (1947), The Rabbiters (1947), and Sunday Evening (1941). Meanwhile the idealized portrayal of Victorian life Down Under is evocative of Frederick McCubbin’s work. The Stanley household could easily be a recreation of Home Again (1884), and Martha’s wardrobe and appearance resemble his portraits of Mrs McCubbinand Miss Flemimg in A Lady in Grey (1900) and Study in White (1902). 

One of the most impressive elements of The Proposition is its breathtaking scale. 

Director of Photography Benoit Delhomme (The Merchant of Venice, 2004) masterfully captures the vast, daunting space of the Australian outback, using wide camera angles to open the film up and instil the look of an epic picture. 

Says Delhomme:

In many ways it’s very difficult to frame an empty landscape and to find good structure in the desert … to try and find the right contrast and the right energy in the light. Often people shoot the desert but you don’t feel the heat. I wanted to show something more sensual and I wanted to feel the texture as much as anything else. One of my other obsessions was to try and increase the violence of the landscape, to show how hard it really was to live and survive there. I trained the cinemascope ratio to show how one single character was lost there – to make everything including the horizon seem very far away.[3]Benoit Delhomme, The Proposition Press Kit, Sony Pictures, 2005, p.19.

The Proposition fiercely resists the trappings of its genre. Indeed it could be said to be a psychological thriller masquerading as a western. The film takes us on a journey of moral dilemmas, weaving back and forth between such emotionally charged issues as brotherly love and bloody revenge. Hillcoat skilfully merges the unbridled violence seen in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) with the imagery and beauty of Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker (2002) to produce a film that is distinctly his own.

The Proposition successfully sidesteps the spaghetti-western clichés made famous by Sergio Leone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966). There are no high-noon draws, saloon brawls, bordello dames or poker games. However, the genre’s staples and recurring themes – vengeance, gaolbreaks and manhunts – survive and flourish. 

The film’s characters are not larger than life, nor do they fit easily into a preconceived mould. There are no heroes, only flawed human beings. Says Danny Huston: ‘There’s good and there’s bad, but the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good.’[4]Danny Huston, ibid., p.14.

John Hillcoat began his career directing and editing music videos for such groups as INXS, Crowded House, Suede and Placebo. In 1988 he directed his first feature film, the claustrophobic prison flick Ghosts of the Civil Dead, which was nominated for nine AFI Awards, and later To Have and To Hold (1996), set in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. His latest film is undoubtedly his best work to date.

Says Hillcoat:

I have always wanted to make an Australian Western. I became convinced that both through the mythic force of the rugged Australian landscape and the country’s brutal history, the legendary power of the Western genre could be reinvented in a specifically Australian context. There are the epic themes of conflict between the law and the outlaw, the oppressor and the oppressed, man and nature. The cruel reality of the Australian frontier is the story of violent conflict; white on white, white on black, black on white, and black on black. Our mission was to depict this Australia as never seen before.[5]John Hillcoat, ibid., p.8.

The Proposition was written by Nick Cave, who also co-composed the film’s hauntingly beautiful soundtrack with Warren Ellis (Praise, 1998). A legendary songwriter, Cave has created tracks for several blockbuster films, including Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury & Conrad Vernon, 2004), Dumb and Dumber (Peter Farrelly, 1994) and Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy (1996–2000). He also co-wrote Hillcoat’s debut film Ghosts of the Civil Dead. While it falls victim to over-exposition, The Proposition is restrained, meticulously structured, and maintains its mystery and anticipation throughout. Cave’s flair as a poetic writer is evident in the richness of the film’s dialogue, which has a Shakespearian elegance, and in his humorous prose: ‘What is an Irishman but a nigger turned inside out.’ Initially he was apprehensive about writing it:

I didn’t feel I had much understanding of dialogue. I knew I could work out a story well enough; I’m basically a narrative kind of songwriter – telling stories is what I do. But I did think I’d have problems with the dialogue. Once I sat down and started though it felt really good and I very much enjoyed the process of writing … a cohesive but mythical story that moved forward and was simple and affecting, as well as highly emotionally charged. The fact that it was a western set in Australia was very much secondary. I was primarily interested in the interplay between characters.[6]Nick Cave, ibid., p.10.

Despite the film’s bare-bones script, or perhaps because of it, The Proposition’s driving force is its cast and the talent they bring to the screen. Guy Pearce gives an engrossing and convincing performance as Charlie, a man pitted against one brother in order to save the other. The only shame is that he wasn’t given more screen time to fully develop his character. Charlie appears too infrequently and says too little for the audience to really care about him. He’s not so much ‘The Man With No Name’ as ‘The Man With Nothing To Say’. 

Although Pearce receives top billing in the film’s poster and promotional material, it’s Ray Winstone who actually plays the main character. Winstone, whose credits include King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua, 2004), Cold Mountain (Anthony Minghella, 2003) and The War Zone (Tim Roth, 1999), is dominating and forbidding in the role of the angry and disgruntled Captain Stanley. His performance is complemented by the very enchanting Emily Watson as Martha, and magnificent ensemble performances from John Hurt, David Wenham and Danny Huston. 

The Proposition is maverick new Australian cinema at its best. An audience film at heart, it is simply and eloquently told. 

1 Ray Winstone, The Proposition Press Kit, Sony Pictures, 2005, pp.12–13.
2 D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo: The Cambridge Edition of the Works of D.H. Lawrence, edited by Bruce Steele, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002.
3 Benoit Delhomme, The Proposition Press Kit, Sony Pictures, 2005, p.19.
4 Danny Huston, ibid., p.14.
5 John Hillcoat, ibid., p.8.
6 Nick Cave, ibid., p.10.