In any kind of ideas-driven film, there has to be a balance between the ideas being addressed and the characters through whom such ideas are conveyed. And in any genre film it's easy to get the balance wrong because of the availability of stock plots and characters - something which is especially true with westerns.
At one end of the spectrum, we have There Will Be Blood - a film with substance pouring from its every orifice, but only one convincing character through which this can be channelled. Because no-one else can rival Daniel Day-Lewis, none of the ideas about imperialism, economics and religion create anything like the emotional impact they should. At the other end, we have The Proposition, a western with many rich performances from a very well-chosen cast, but which is ultimately a little too straightforward in its execution.
On the good side, The Proposition does a very good job of demonstrating just how hardy the western genre is, showing how its conventions can be applied to any environment with the same effect. Until we first hear Guy Pearce's Irish lilt or Ray Winstone's throaty London growl, we could have sworn that we were back in the Wild West. In throwing us off so cleanly in its opening section, the film amply demonstrates how the familiar trademarks of westerns are not restricted or confined by geography, any more than the ideas which such films attempt to address.
This hardiness is cemented by the central performances, which take the various stock characters and adapt them to their new surroundings to create a number of memorable turns. Ray Winstone's troubled Captain Stanley is the outback's equivalent of the battle-worn sheriff, someone who has seen one too many gunfights and longs for peace while despairingly mindful that it is impossible. On top of his usual gruff posturing and natural aggression, Winstone brings a vulnerable quality to the part which makes him more compelling.
The other performers are equally impressive. Emily Watson continues to be the go-to actress for delicate, sensitive female characters. She succeeds where Meryl Streep has so often failed, namely being emotionally wrought and highly strung without being showy or attention-seeking. David Wenham casts off the mantle of Faramir as the uptight, lip-curling Eden Fletcher, who seeks order and justice without really understanding what is needed to achieve either. And Guy Pearce remains one of the most underrated actors of his generation: very few people could go from the grimy, scuzzy Charlie Burns to Andy Warhol in under 12 months.
With this rich cast in place, we begin to appreciate the various ideas which The Proposition is trying to raise. The setting of 1880s Australia instinctively raises the issue of imperialism, and that is confirmed by the early section of the film. Stanley constantly talks about his desire to "civilise this land" by whatever means. His clashes with Fletcher are not simply a difference in personality, but a reflection of differing attitudes to justice and 'the colonials'.
Fletcher is the new boy in town and wants to do things by the book: he insists on having Mickey Burns flogged to death since the 'proposition' was not binding in law. Stanley, meanwhile, has been out there long enough to know you sometimes have to compromise, letting a small evil slip through the net so you can deal with the big evil. But he has not become entirely lost to the landscape, retaining his military dress and insisting upon turkey at Christmas.
Although there is imperial politics hanging over the events in The Proposition, the focus is much more on the personal than the political. To a certain extent the film argues that the actual working nature of the British Empire was determined more by individual desire than anything more noble or idealistic (insofar as empire-building could be either of those things). Neither Stanley nor Fletcher ever mention 'the old country' or appeal to high ideals to justify their actions. It could even be argued that Stanley's motivations behind his deal with Charlie Burns was motivated out of nothing more than wanting peace with his wife (which makes his final scene all the more ironic).
Coming from a script by Nick Cave, The Proposition has its fair share of grim Biblical imagery. The brutal dilemmas faced by the characters mirror various stories in the Old Testament about individuals being called upon to commit murder in the name of justice and righteousness. Charlie's act is both a betrayal of his own kin and an attempt to save it, mirroring Cain's conflicted nature when he murdered Abel in Genesis. And the level of violent retribution is worthy of anything in the book of Judges; the raping of Stanley's wife is no less repulsive than Ehud's murder of the fat king Eglon, or Jael driving a tent peg through her master's temples as he slept.
Like Winter's Bone a few years later, The Proposition also has atmosphere to spare. John Hillcoat shoots the scenes of Charlie Burns' quest with a completely unfussy eye, letting the landscape speak for itself. While he does become more intrusive, he shoots conversation in close-up so that we can almost taste the sweat and feel the flies on the characters' faces. Music plays its role as well: in addition to the original score by Nick Cave and fellow Bad Seed Warren Ellis, the opening shootout is carefully choreographed so that the bullets hitting the brothel become a form of percussion.
However, The Proposition also has the same basic flaw as Winter's Bone - namely that the story is far too thin even for its short running time. Atmosphere and score can only do so much in pulling us in, before the actual narrative and themes have to step in and take over. Sadly, once all Cave's music and sense of dread is stripped away, the remaining story is deceptively and disappointing simple, and nothing is resolved in a satisfying manner.
The sequences in the outback have great potential within them in terms of generating tension. The fearful comments of the Aborigines hint towards Apocalypse Now, with Charlie going deeper into the wilderness in search of his own personal Kurtz. But as with Hillcoat's subsequent film The Road, neither the script nor the direction allow a genuine sense of horror to build, and it becomes more about the journey itself than the meaning behind it. The scenery-chewing performances by John Hurt and Danny Huston may be good fun, but they undercut the sense of dread, making us feel like we are going round in circles.
This increasing lack of dread means that the existential implications of the story are also stifled. In No Country for Old Men, the relatively simple progression of the story was married to a deep-rooted examination of the nature of evil and the motivation behind it. You therefore felt that even when something happened which was abrupt or overly straightforward, there was a reason for it. The Proposition simply doesn't have that sense of weight which makes a good western into a great one, and that makes the violence in the last twenty minutes feel all the more gratuitous.
The Proposition is a promisingly decent debut for Hillcoat, who on the basis of The Road seems to be improving as a filmmaker. All the ingredients for a well-executed western are to be found in it, and in its acting and aesthetics it is well-crafted. But like Mad Max 3 before it, the film never lives up to the promise of the ideas that it raises, resulting in a film which is enjoyable but only memorable in passing.