Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), a cowboy roaming the Australian outback in the early part of the 20th Century, and his younger brother, Mike (Richard Wilson) are captured at a whorehouse, after a bloody gunfight, by the new lawman in town, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). Charlie and his three brothers committed a particularly brutal murder of an innocent family. After that event, Charlie and Mike left their brother, taking off on their own. The Burns' Brothers became public enemy number one and the public demand their capture. Stanley makes Charlie a proposition; he will keep Mike in custody while Charlie goes out to hunt his older, more vicious brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the leader of the group. If Charlie kills Arthur, Stanley will let Mike go. Stanley comes home to his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who tends the garden and attempts to make a proper home, a refuge for him in this godforsaken place.
"The Proposition", written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, is a good, very violent Western, similar to the films of Sam Peckinpah. The film depicts an era of Australia's history many of us are probably unfamiliar with and it does so in particularly grisly fashion.
Guy Pearce is a very good actor and it is always a pleasure to watch him. Well, almost always. In "The Proposition", he once again fully inhabits his character, a dusty, dirty, bloody, violent cowboy riding the Australian range. While this is great for the character, it is not so pleasant for the audience. Every time he and the other actors enter the screen, you can almost smell the stink rising off their bodies, they are dirty, sweaty, bloody or in some other way filthy in just about every scene. Ray Winstone's Captain Stanley is always covered in a sheen of sweat or dust. Again, this helps to make the film seem authentic, but it doesn't make it very easy to watch. The stink and dirt are very nearly palpable and you feel your nostrils closing in defense, to ward off the onslaught of odor.
Pearce is always interesting to watch, but Charlie Burns is more of the silent type, much like Clint Eastwood's famous persona, the Man with No Name. Charlie does a lot of observation and seems to jump into action at a moments notice. At times, this makes him scary, at others, simply interesting. Throughout, he seems conflicted about his family. On the one hand, he wants to put as much distance as possible between his older and younger brothers. He clearly cares about his younger brother and loathes his older brother, but the reasons for these feelings are a bit vague. Yes, we get that Arthur led them to massacre an innocent family, but did Charlie have regrets only after the act? We don't really find this out and it leaves a bit of a void concerning this character. The performance is good, but Pearce has done better.
Ray Winstone is a little more complicated. On the one hand, Captain Stanley realizes he has been sent to a lawless hellhole to establish order. In order to accomplish this, he must be ruthless. But he also has a wife at home, who provides him with an escape and won't tolerate such behavior. Martha (Emily Watson) does everything she can to maintain a normal English home. There is a moment when he returns home, when he has to stop for a moment and realize he is in a completely different environment. This is his sanctuary and he doesn't want anything to invade it. At one point, Martha journeys into the town and visits her husband at the jail. As the other men look at her wantonly, Stanley has to restrain his anger. He can't have his wife unprotected in the small town.
Emily Watson does an interesting job with Martha. Clearly, she would rather be elsewhere, in England, enjoying the finer things in life, but her husband has been called to this post, so she must support him. She grows a garden, she orders a Christmas tree and fine ornaments from a catalog and she prepares a turkey for their holiday dinner. She works tirelessly to maintain a proper lifestyle, yet, she still seems bored with the life of solitude here. She doesn't seem to have any friends, and seems to be regarded as another class of human all together by the people in the town. It is a nice performance, bringing depth to the film.
John Hurt portrays a bounty hunter by the name of Jellon Lamb. In his initial encounter with Charlie, Jellon is so drunk he can't even think straight, rattling off racial epitaphs directed at the Irish. His histrionics lead to some of the worst over acting I have seen in a long time. Later, he has regains his wits and attempts to take the Burns brothers in. Thankfully, the performance is brief; too much of his scenery chewing and the film would be unbearable.
Danny Huston is interesting to watch as Arthur, the older, more psychopathic brother. But we don't get an overriding sense of his evil. For instance, when Charlie returns, Arthur seems to welcome him with open arms. There is never a sense of distrust. He never questions why his younger brother would leave and then suddenly return. There is also a woman in the camp who appears to be Arthur's girlfriend, but then she suddenly disappears. These inconsistencies mar this character and prevent him from becoming a memorable, evil SOB.
As the film reaches it's inevitable, bloody climax, there is also something missing. Clearly, Charlie will play a part in the climax, but his motivation is unclear. Why does he take the position he does? The only indications we receive are looks of quiet brooding as Charlie stares ahead, grime and blood covering part of his face. Because he is the silent type, he doesn't talk a lot and his character isn't as fully developed as necessary. Which is a shame because Charlie promised to be one of Pearce's most memorable creations yet.
Yet I can still smell the stink emanating from his pores. Unfortunately, that is about the most memorable aspect of his character.
"The Proposition" is an interesting film, but to fully enjoy it, you will need to be a huge fan of westerns. If you don't like this genre, or violent films, stay away. Far away.