This movie recco post is by Gyandeep Pattnayak.
I ask, “Have you seen The Proposition?”, I get replies like, “Yeah man, that Reynolds guy and Bullock have smoldering chemistry even though she is a bit more…”. I interrupt, “Umm, no, no. The Proposition is a Western starring Guy P…”. My turn to get interrupted, “Western? You mean cowboys and stuff? Man, I thought you were talking about that romantic comedy.” “It is The Proposal.” “Oh, is it? Okay. But, hey man, who watches westerns anymore, anyway?” In a way, the other person is not just speaking for himself/herself; he/she is speaking for a bunch. And it is a fact.
Western is a done-to-death genre which typically involves a plot built on the grounds of retribution. How more can you change it when everything has been done and said by Peckinpah, Eastwood and Leone? What innovation can you bring to these films if there isn’t room for any? The answer is simple – you take the poetic route.
John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is not only the best Western I have seen since Eastwood’s Unforgiven, it is also easily one of the best films ever made. The Hopkins family is brutally massacred by the Burns brothers gang. It is the 1880s and the place is the arid Australian wilderness. The climate is harsh and the dust is as much a character as any other present in the frame. A gunfight ensues between the local police and the Burns gang and Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) succeeds in overpowering Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey. The whole gang is wiped out leaving these brothers Burns in the clutches of Captain Stanley. Stanley knows Charlie and Mikey are not the ones who were involved in the Hopkins massacre. Stanley gives Charlie a choice, “Kill your elder brother Arthur and all will be forgiven. You have 9 days. If you do not, little Mikey here, will hang from the gallows on Christmas Day.” Charlie reluctantly gives in. He hasn’t talked with his elder brother in a long, long time. You see, he hates him as much as anybody else. Why? Because, Arthur not only has a penchant for stomach-churning violence but also has a thing for poetry – which makes him all the more scarier. What kind of a man will maim, rape and murder a lady who is pregnant? Well, welcome to the world of Arthur Burns. This is a ghastly crime, not to be tolerated at any cost. That is the reason why Captain Stanley resorts to this method – one that of partial blackmail.
I think this is one of the key points in the film. Stanley wants to make the place more ‘civilized’. He has just been transferred here and with him is his beautiful wife Martha (Emily Mortimer). It is more than evident that he wants no harm done to her. And for her sake, this place must be swept clean of people like Arthur Burns. And in order to get this done, Stanley has to play it a bit discordant, a bit harsh, a bit like the outlaws. It is easier having an outlaw kill another, right? Captain Stanley, however, has no idea. There are no ideal deals in life; perhaps, he should be aware of that.
Things do not go as planned and word gets around in town – word about the deal which Stanley has made with Charlie. Eden Fletcher, (David Wenham) Captain Stanley’s superior, orders Mikey be given a hundred lashes on his bare back for the heinous crime which he has committed against the Hopkins family. Stanley stands aghast as he watches the entire townsfolk, his wife included, support this punishment. “He committed a horrible crime. This cannot be excused.”, she tell him. But how does he, a lone man, against a town, (no less) make them understand? It is very important to note that Ray Winstone is an actor who is extremely restrained and disciplined. The casting helps here. The portrayal of Captain Stanley giving in to the demands of the public is poignant and is masterfully played by Winstone. It is at this point, that Stanley knows intuitively that the dark clouds have dawned upon them. He knows Arthur will come for them. And he prepares himself for a Christmas dinner with his wife, gun in hand, manners in place and fear in heart. And then terror arrives.
The director John Hillcoat, working from a screenplay by Nick Cave, evokes as much a sense of place and time as much as he exploits violence in these lands. Which is why an actor like Danny Huston is needed to portray Arthur Burns, who is more of a savage than an outlaw. Arthur is a poet. He believes in good things. He believes, letting a man complete his part of a poem, before the man dies, is essential. He believes in violence and his violence is immediate and invisible. Rarely have I seen a film in which the antagonist is as fearsome and as loathsome as Arthur Burns without the film actually showing us the crimes he is committing. That Huston manages to play his part so excellently is commendable in the sense that he brings a sense of calm while he lets us know that something bad is about to happen. Watch that scene in which he comes to know that Mikey is no more alive. And the violence that follows is inevitable. It all comes down to this. You kill mine, I kill yours too.
Guy Pearce who plays Charlie is everything that Stanley and Arthur are not. On finding out that his younger brother died for no fault of his, Charlie takes a decision which, in a sense, is predictable. But it is also necessary. There must be an end to all of this. John Hurt has a cameo and I will not speak about it. Let me just go ahead and say this – at this age, Hurt plays a role which requires him to do some physical action and Hurt nails it. His is a bravura performance and if I were to single out a performance in this movie which was both humorous and scary, it would be this one.
There are violent films and then there are some. The Proposition is savagely brilliant and poetic, both at the same time. Beautifully shot, performed, scored and directed, this is what any filmmaker should be having wet dreams about. It had me pondering, “Is violence a part of these lands or does it come from within?” The more I thought about it, the surer I was of the former. Some places just get the better part of you and don’t let go easily.
PS – For more posts by Gyandeep, click here – The ‘I’ in Cinema.