John Hillcoat (director)
104 min (length)
11 April 2022 (released)
08 April 2022
“Australia…what fresh ‘ell is this?” asks Ray Winstone’s ‘Captain Stanley’ as he looks not only at the lawlessness of 19th century Australia during a violent shootout but into a horizon seemingly consumed by mercilessly glistening heat. Soon though, things are going to get considerably hotter, namely when Stanley throws a proposition at captured outlaw Guy Pearce: if he tracks down his older and extremely dangerous brother hiding in the outback, then his younger and simple-minded brother will be spared the noose… Acclaimed singer, composer and author Nick Cave wrote the screenplay for this violent and captivating ‘Western’ which saw its original theatrical release back in 2005 and is now available 4K restored on UHD & Blu-ray plus digital platforms.
The opening credits ironically juxtapose the famous 19th century hymn ‘There Is a Happy Land, Far Far Away’ with what we have in store. Although the story’s concept seems pretty straightforward at first this unique and poetic little masterpiece turns out to be a complex tale which doesn’t only illustrate the brutality of Australian ‘frontier life’ in the 19th century and the general hostility of its challenging landscape but it also touches on themes such as the arrogance of British settlers complete with their racist attitudes towards the country’s indigenous people.
The movie opens quite literally with a bang, namely during a brutal shootout between law enforcer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his men – and outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and some of his gang, including his younger and somewhat simple-minded brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) who – for most of the time – looks as if he doesn’t even know what day of the week it is, never mind loading a gun. Charlie, Mikey and some other unsavoury characters are barricading themselves in what appears to be a ramshackle make-shift brothel when Stanley, who has got wind of the bandits whereabouts, and his men begin an almighty shootout which leaves several dead and the two brothers wounded. However, the one that Stanley is really after is Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) – the oldest of the Burns brothers and by far the most dangerous and unhinged of the lot. In fact, he is wanted for having massacred a family of settlers including a pregnant woman who, to make things worse, happened to be a good friend of Stanley’s wife Martha (Emily Watson). The Stanleys’ have only just recently arrived in Australia after Martha’s well-to-do family had disapproved of their daughter marrying a man ‘below her station’. Now he desperately tries to conceal the fact that his wife’s brutally murdered friend Eliza was pregnant – something he hopes Martha will never discover (although she does eventually). In order to capture Arthur, Stanley has a proposition for Charlie Burns: if he finds his psychopathic older brother and either kills him there and then or brings him back into town so the law can execute him, then his younger brother Mikey (the most innocent of the lot) will not meet an untimely end at the gallows. If Charlie fails to capture Arthur, then Mikey will be hanged on Christmas Day.
Knowing full well how protective Charlie is towards his younger brother he was of course right in assuming that Charlie would accept the proposition and off he rides in his quest to find Arthur. Meanwhile, the town’s narrow-minded governor Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) isn’t at all impressed with Captain Stanley’s proposition, far from it! The townspeople and several other law enforcers want to see all three Burns brothers hanging from the gallows to avenge the brutal slaying of the settler family, however, Stanley is confident his method will ensure that Arthur will be caught and brought to justice. It would have been if things would have gone according to plan but they don’t. In his search for dear brother Arthur, Charlie stumbles across crazed bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) who has his own agenda for catching Arthur Burns: the reward money! Now Charlie has to continue his search with the assumption that there may well be more bounty hunters after Arthur. On top of this and while riding through the desolate landscape, a group of Aborigines who aren’t at all pleased that a white man rides through their sacred land, throw a spear at Charlie, which injures him badly. Back in town (if you can call it that…) things don’t fare much better mind you because Fletcher and the townspeople want to see blood and won’t forgive Captain Stanley his decision to let Charlie Burns go, as they call it. In order to calm the incensed citizens and to teach Stanley a lesson, Governor Fletcher – a narrow-minded man who doesn’t even attempt to understand why Stanley did what he did – decides that young Mikey should be brought from his prison cell (if you can call it that…) and publicly flogged receiving a hundred lashes. Stanley knows that the chances of surviving such an ordeal is minimal just as he knows that by flogging Mikey his promise to Charlie Burns that Mikey will come to no harm while he is out there looking for Arthur will now be broken and there’s nothing he can do about Fletcher’s unwise decision.
Meanwhile, the badly wounded Charlie has managed to track down Arthur who is hiding in the mountains together with his cronies Sam Stoat (Tom Budge) and the Aborigine Two-Bob (Tom E. Lewis – best known through his title role in THE CHANT OF JIMMY BLACKSMITH). Last but not least there’s Queenie (Leah Purcell), a native healer who tends to Charlie’s wounds. When Arthur asks his brother why Mikey isn’t with him, Charlie pretends that Mikey stayed back in town when he met a pretty Irish Colleen (the Burns brothers are Irish immigrants) but later on has a change of heart and tells Arthur the truth. Now the Burns gang hatch an elaborate plan to ride into town to free Mikey, unaware that he lies in his prison cell dying from his wounds. This twist of events not only alters the fate of the Burns brothers but that of Captain Stanley, including his wife Martha… leading up to the shocking climax.
THE PROPOSITION is captivating from beginning to end and the story’s brutality is highlighted even more by the intense performances of the main cast. Far from being just a revenge flick it cleverly touches on themes such as the racism of the white settlers towards the Aborigines but also Aborigines against their own, for example in the case of Jacko (David Gulpilil), a native who spies for the British army (in this case, spying refers to finding out where rebel Aborigines hide out who continue to attack white intruders). Screenwriter Nick Cave (who contributed some of the film’s music) is also very cynical in his observations regarding the typical British stiff upper lip attitude which is permanently at loggerheads with Australian culture, for example, Captain Stanley’s house stands in the middle of nowhere and yet, a white picket fence, rose beds and what have you demonstrate the Stanley’s unwillingness to leave their traditional British Empire values behind – Martha even serves tea and scones every afternoon on the terrace! Oh the English and their tea! Their attitudes are completely unsuitable to their new surroundings and their clothes are even more unsuitable to Australia’s climate. To highlight this, the uncomprehending Martha continues to drool over English fashion magazines displaying the latest couture, all of which is extremely inappropriate in this their new homeland.
This newly 4K restored film looks absolutely splendid in UHD & Blu-ray, rarely has the colours of Australia’s outback looked so vibrant and one can almost feel the heat. Indeed, the intense heat and the never-ending armies of flies are the main topic the actors address on the generous bonus material which includes extensive ‘Making of…’ docus, interviews, archive footage, audio commentaries and more. Emily Watson recalls how filming in almost 50 degrees heat was akin to “being baked from the inside”, with Ray Winstone adding that days when the temperatures were a mere 40 degrees felt cool by comparison. In contrast, Danny Huston muses that filming in this unbearable heat – despite the challenges – forced everyone to work at a much slower pace, which contributed to the film’s general vibe.