Everyone thinks they're righteous. No one, not corrupt policemen, rapists, nor killers want to believe they're anything but the hero of their own fiction. This facet of human nature is what John Hillcoat and Nick Cave acknowledge--to huge success--in their Aussie-western epic The Proposition.
Following the intertwining stories of the lawman, Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) and the outlaw, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), The Proposition unflinchingly portrays both men as selfless, brave, cowardly, despicable, and ultimately very human. At the outset of the film, Stanley captures Charlie Burns and his younger brother Mikey Burns, and offers Charlie a proposition: find and kill his older brother, Arthur, in nine days, or Mikey hangs by the neck until dead. While Stanley is presented as the villain in this expository scene, he's soon given very good reasons for hating the Burns gang, remaining sympathetic and vulnerable even through frequent fire-and-brimstone speeches on civilization and justice.
The moral ambiguity of the conflict is maintained strongly by top-drawer acting from all involved. Pearce's performance as the conflicted outlaw is one of his best since LA Confidential, and Ray Winstone presents the intelligent, well-mannered police captain with a subtle dignity on-par with legendary actors like Anthony Hopkins and Patrick Stewart. Even the supporting cast--most notably Emily Watson playing the role of Morris Stanley's wife, Martha--are superb, powering the screen with emotion and repose, while never taking the attention away from the principal actors.
Hillcoat's mastery of the medium also plays an enormous part in the story's poignant delivery. Every frame is minimally composed with high-key lights and super-saturated colors, accentuating the wasteland setting and physical strain on the people in it. Aside from tweaked lights and colors, the film is presented as gritty realism, handsome actors uglied up without a second thought as their characters are abused and broken. This uncompromising dedication to the script's themes and messages is what elevates it above a standard western genre-film. The Proposition isn't just a competent period piece--it's one of the finest movies of the year.
While the film's questioning of moral absolutism is it's uncanny strength, it's also a weakness. The realistic tack taken with the story will be refreshing to film enthusiasts and those looking for something other than a cliched 'good-versus-evil' Hollywood plotline, but not having anyone to root for may make it inaccessible to casual filmgoers. This can hardly be seen as a real weakness, though it's only fair to say that The Proposition is absolutely not feel-good brain candy for the masses. It's dark, it's disturbing, and it's very rewarding if you're able to overcome the urge to cry by the time the credits roll.
Check out the trailer for The Proposition at theproposition.co.uk. The Proposition opens at the Uptown Stage and Screen Fri., June 23. Pistols and dingos will be checked at the door.