Must Love Dogs

Starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham and Emily Watson. Directed by: John Hillcoat
Screenplay by: Nick Cave
Running Time: 104 mins
Rated: MA 15+
The Proposition has been billed as an Australian western, but this brutally honest film is much more than that. It is the first Australian film since the 1980s to break new ground in telling stories about Australia's past, and unlike the dated storytelling in Phillip Noyce's otherwise admirable and compelling Rabbit-Proof Fence, this new style is poetic and profoundly disturbing, shaking the viewer into an understanding of past savagery that is as topical and disturbing as today's newspaper headlines.

Nick Cave's powerful script tells a simple story. In a town in outback Australia in the 1880s, a violent gunfight is being fought between two bushrangers holed up in a wooden shack, and a band of troopers led by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). The outlaws are two Irishmen, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), the perpetrators of countless robberies and the horrendous massacre of a settler family.

With the two men finally overcome and in chains, Captain Stanley, desperate to bring order to the region, makes Charlie Burns an unorthodox proposition: if Charlie agrees to track down and kill his psychopathic elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), Stanley will pardon both Charlie and Mikey. Otherwise Mikey will be hanged on Christmas Day.

Forced to choose between his brothers, Charlie agrees. But while Charlie is in pursuit of Arthur who has escaped with his gang into the mountains, the news of Stanley's compact with Charlie becomes common knowledge. A deputation of townspeople led by Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), a wealthy squatter, demands retribution. When events spiral out of control, not only are the lives of Stanley and his wife Martha (Emily Watson) at risk, but seemingly all hope of taming a violent land.

Just as the most memorable Hollywood westerns (High Noon, Unforgiven) tackle themes that go beyond simplistic notions of good and evil, so The Proposition is multi-layered and probes deeply into Australia's past.

Filmed in north-west Queensland, Benoit Delhomme's innovative lensing of the Australian outback captures both the landscape's harsh beauty and its intrinsic hostility to settlers who, like Robinson Crusoe, sought to recreate England in a foreign land. Nowhere is this more poignantly portrayed than in the genteel, Victorian interior of the Stanley's home, where dainty chinaware, flowered prints, and cotton-wool snow at Christmas-time, stands in stark contrast to the desert stretching infinitely beyond the picket fence.

Also graphically displayed is the price of nation-building, shameful scenes where Aborigines with chains around their necks are casually herded like recalcitrant sheep into caged wagons, and the ruthlessness of criminals is more than matched by the primitive vengeance of the law.

The most harrowing sequence in the film is the public flogging of Mikey, urged on by Fletcher and intended as a retributive entertainment for the mob. But unlike the cruel scenes of this kind in scores of Hollywood films, the townspeople are shown as turning away sickened and shocked by the gruesome consequences of the punishment they have clamoured for so loudly.

Like the characters in a Clint Eastwood western or Francis Coppola's Godfather series, the protagonists are portrayed as anti-heroes left to their own devices in a morally rudderless world.

Played with understated charisma by Pearce (L A Confidential, Memento), Charlie is a morally ambiguous man, much in the mould of a Ned Kelly, who is faced with an impossible choice. Although he loves his older brother, he chooses the lesser of two evils, because although an outlaw, he draws the line at the atrocities perpetrated by Arthur, and because Mikey is an innocent boy.

Stanley, played superbly by Winston (Sexy Beast, The War Zone), is also shown as struggling with unenviable choices. As an instrument of order in an imperfect system, where racism is endemic and the ancient war between the Irish and the English has been simply transplanted to a distant shore, Stanley must decide whether to tread an unorthodox path to staunch evil, or abide by the law and see justice trounced.

This moral ambiguity pervades the film. The Proposition is not only about Australian history. It is about human nature and the world we inhabit, where blacks, although unjustly treated, can also be collaborators in their own destruction, where the battle to maintain our humanity is perennial and ongoing, and heroes come from unlikely sources.

The Proposition has scenes that will deeply disturb some filmgoers. Despite this, in a year that has been exceptional for Australian filmmaking (Little Fish, Look Both Ways, Wolf Creek, Oyster Farmer), The Proposition is a triumph of new Australian filmmaking, with Hillcoat fulfilling the promise of his brutal but brilliant Ghosts

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