There seem to be two kinds of westerns. Those that evoke the west as a lost time and a simpler life and those that show just how far we've come. The first type use evocative landscapes, beautiful scenery, and make you long to be out in the great wild. The other make you thankful for indoor plumbing, air conditioning, and anything green. John Hillcoat's The Proposition is an extreme case of the second. His vision of the west makes the Australian outback look like the armpit of the world. A land where everything is covered in dirt, there is no grass, no running water, and everyone is in bad need of a shave and a bath. Flies and insencts are visible in every shot, and they hang around the living just as abundantly as corpses.
It's Christmas time, but in the Southern Hemisphere it's in the heat of summer. This desert looks like it never gets cool regardless. This in many ways is an anti Christmas film. One that instead of celebrating the joy of family and a warm fireplace and new fallen snow, its about a warped sense of family, and a dry area where the one rare rainfall produces nothing but puddles full of mud. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is trying to be a Christian pillar of society. A British man sent to Australia to help control what is essentially a lawless society. He is contrasted by Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), who seems an immoral criminal with no home. The casting helps to separate them further. Winstone being a blond, heavyset man, and Pearce skinny with long dark hair. If it wasn't enough, the Burns brothers are Irish by descent, making them naturally seem enemies to the British Mr. and Mrs. Stanley.
Captain Stanley however isn't too far removed from them, and the longer the film progresses the more we see how he and Charlie are the most similar characters in the story. They each have a sense of justice, and they each realize that Arthur (Danny Huston) is the real criminal and the one that needs to be weeded out of society. Charlie loathes his brother for the bad name he has given all of them, and the horrible example he set not only for himself but also for their younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson). Charlie knows that Mikey is only in jail because of Arthur, and he'll be hanged in exchange. Stanley has a sense of moral responsibility when he resists allowing the simpleton Mikey to be whipped. His punishment is quite excessive being 100 lashes, and as we see, he nearly dies before they even get to 40. Each of these men hate the land that they call their home but there on two different sides of the fence. Not surprising that a white picket fence is used to block off Stanley's home, even though it sits out in the middle of nowhere, with only one scarce tree in the horizon.
Mrs. Stanley (Emily Watson) is the one member of society who doesn't seem to be crawling through troughs of mud. Her character is representational. She is a typical woman in one that is supposed to be virginal and free of sin. She is the most out of place in this society, but she remains clean and free of dirt even when riding into town. The only other person who seems capable of grooming is the town's constable who is too out of touch with the world to really know what's good for it. Both of these characters are lambs and they have no business in this barren and awful wilderness. The only difference is, that the Constable is ruthless and represents the well fed politician eager to make the criminals suffer without paying any heed to the method or mode of punishment. His is a selfish quest, and in his world there is no code of ethics. Captain Stanley fights by rules, and for this there is some level of respect between him and Charlie.
The film and the music were written by Nick Cave and its one of the most desolate westerns yet realized. The film has some wonderful cinematic moments and some great work by its lead actors, most notably Guy Pearce who gets through most of the film with barely a word of dialogue. Although he has a name, he is much more evocative of the quiet anti-heroes of Leone, and you can only hope that he does what's morally right in the end.
Grade B +