King of the Wasteland: Guy Pearce goes wandering the outback after a fierce army captain makes him a 'Proposition' he can't refuse.'
Human dingoes or Peter Weirwolves? Tightly knit criminals fight the fallible law in 'The Proposition.'
By Richard von Busack
IN AUSTRALIA during the savage outlaw days, a British army Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone) sets forth a terrible proposition to a criminal he has just arrested. If Charles Burns (Guy Pearce) goes out and executes his brother Arthur (Danny Huston)—a murderous rapist who just destroyed a settler's house—the law will spare his other brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), an inoffensive, half-bright punk. The fratricide has to be committed by Christmas. Out into the range goes Charles on this hideous mission. Back at town stays Stanley, a martyr to headaches that are only truly soothed by his wife, Martha (Emily Watson). She's shut out of the captain's professional life and spends her time trying to turn the wilderness into an English garden.
One could mistake The Proposition for something deep because of its slack-jawed awe of the outback. Onscreen, "the bush salute"—a trekker brushing the flies from in front of his eyes—can look like a dismayed man trying to wave away hallucinations. And give the film credit, it is well art-directed and photographed. The swarming flies are as shiny as ball bearings. At a few yards, Pearce has the clifflike facial planes of Eastwood in a spaghetti Western, with forest-green decaying teeth meant to advertise the film's realism. The ever-impassive David Gulpilil is the Charles Bronson of outback pictures once again. In the scene of waiting for the ambush in a boarded-up furnace of a house, it's old-movie touching to see the Christmas that the captain and his wife try to keep. Sure the moment comes across as delusional, but isn't Christmas always delusional? Watson provides a visual contrast to the heat, the dust and the ever-present blood. She is so soft that when she lays her fishnet-gloved hand on her face, it leaves lines behind on her cheek.
Still, there is tough tough, and then there is stage tough, and The Proposition is definitely the latter. What else could it be with a script by Nick Cave? For years, Cave has been issuing albums that bear the same resemblance to the music of authentic holler-dwelling, demon-haunted hillbillies that the New York Dolls bear to the Germs. It is wrong to hold a man's birth against him, but an English-teacher's son like Cave isn't going to have the same reaction to criminal life as someone who grew up with violence. He will romanticize it; he will overestimate its meaning. He will be as ludicrous as Bob Dylan moaning over the fate of the gunman Joey Gallo.
Damning Cave as an overinflater doesn't explain my disgust with this Aussie Western. Maybe it was the combination of graphic violence with poserly nihilism that kept me good and estranged. The Proposition is not a street-smart movie, even for a film with unpaved roads. The man-hunters speechify; a bounty killer called Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) proves the most loquacious, but the psychotic Arthur (third-generation overactor Danny Huston) is meant to be redeemed by his love of sunsets. The film doesn't propose to make sense. Since the townspeople are so hot for the blood of the Burns gang, why can't they organize against them? Had the useful word "posse" not made it to Australia? There doesn't seem a better explanation for The Proposition than that it was meant to invert High Noon, this time around making the sheriff passive and the Quaker wife vengeful.
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