The Proposition (2006)

Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Richard Wilson

Directed by: John Hillcoat

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley in The Proposition

'What fresh hell is this?' snarls Ray Winston's burly Captain Stanley as he steps outside the bullet ridden shell of a tin shack whorehouse to gaze across the hot arid sands of a vast, unending desert.

This is the Australian outback circa 1880 - the real wild, wild West. And Captain Stanley is here from Britain to tame it. 'I'll civilise this country,' he growls under his breath, sweating profusely in the intense heat and knocking back painkillers for a constant headache.

As part of his plan to do so, he has captured Charlie and Mikey Burns, two thirds of the notorious Burns gang, an outlaw band of Irish brothers who have terrorised the countryside with shocking acts of violence, murder and rape. Now Stanley has a proposition to put to Charlie (Guy Pearce, looking, lean, mean and rough as biscuits - Priscilla Queen of the Desert this ain't): track down and kill your elder brother, the gang's ringleader Arthur, or soft-headed younger brother Mikey will hang on Christmas day.

Ray Winstone and Emily Watson in The Proposition

And so the monosyllabic Charlie sets out on his terrible mission, while Stanley returns to the outback town of Banyon, where he's derided for being a soft touch by his fellow police troopers and the town's nominal 'lord of the manor', the effete but nasty Eden Fletcher (Lord of the Rings' David Wenham, proving yet again what a very fine character actor he is). Meanwhile, Stanley's stubborn, resourceful wife Martha (Emily Watson), who maintains his home like a little piece of England in the midst of the desert, complete with tea set and rose garden, wants to know just what the Burns brothers did that was so very bad.

Although at first we're appalled at Stanley's proposition, as the film progresses, we come to understand the reasoning behind it. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and these are very desperate times. Stanley is, at heart, a good man, trying to do an impossible job in a worse place. For the Australia of The Proposition is a cruel, lawless land of red dust shimmering in a haze of heat, where grit-laden winds blow harsh across an endless plain and flies buzz incessantly round everything - living or dead. My God, making this film must have been an ordeal.

So hats off, then, to the magnificent cast. Ray Winstone is solid, powerful and ultimately deeply sympathetic as the beleaguered Captain Stanley, while Guy Pearce simmers with repressed intensity as Charlie Burns. Danny Huston gives an energetic performance as Arthur Burns, portraying him as a kind of demented Charles Manson figure, surrounding himself with people far stupider and more gullible than he, setting himself up as some sort of spiritual guru, in touch with nature, yet capable of atrocious acts of violence. But five stars have to go to the wonderful John Hurt: wild and wicked as the crazy 'fortune hunter' Jellon Lamb, he injects the film with a shot of adrenaline that's reminiscent of Richard Harris's bravado turn in Unforgiven.

In fact, The Proposition echoes Clint Eastwood's great western on many levels. Like Unforgiven, it is harsh, uncompromising and visceral, offering an unflinching and, well, unforgiving portrait of life beyond the frontiers of civilisation, where a portrait of Queen Victoria can look down benignly as a man bleeds to death beneath a Union Jack flag. Measured and often slow moving, the mesmeric pace is interrupted by bursts of appalling violence, as the film builds up to a nail-bitingly suspenseful yet horribly inevitable climax.

Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns and Danny Huston as crazy elder brother Arthur in The Propositioni

As you might expect from a project with Nick Cave at the helm, The Proposition is a real work of art. As well as writing the lean, poetic screenplay, Cave also contributed the chilling soundtrack: combining folk motifs with nails-down-a-blackboard electro sounds, the music is as sparse and haunting as the landscape, echoing perfectly the terrible blood soaked beauty of the Australian outback. A tough, brutal, adult film that is at times almost as painful to watch as it must have been to make, The Proposition is an extraordinary achievement. Don't miss your chance to see it on the big screen.

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