It’s those damn Girl Scouts again. Hide or they’ll keep ringing the bell.

Golden Mug

WINNER: Cinematography (Benoit Delhomme)
NOMINEE: Supporting Actor (Ray Winstone), Art Direction (Bill Booth, Marita Mussett, Chris Kennedy)

Theatrical Release Date: 10/06/2005 (Australia), 05/05/2006 (USA)
Director: John Hillcoat
Cast: Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, David Wenham, John Hurt, Danny Huston

Hollywood doesn’t really make Westerns anymore. I had to go back to “Open Range” in 2003 to find the last one. And no, I don’t count crap like “American Outlaws” or “Texas Rangers”.

Of course, the last great Western was Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” way back in 1992. Much like his films from the 70’s, “Unforgiven” embodied all that is great about Westerns – morality, raw emotion, sparse and beautiful landscapes and a raw viciousness that only revolvers and knives can bring to the cinematic table in this era of CGI and handheld rocket launchers.

Trying to defibrillate a dead horse, Australia has taken a stab at bringing the Western back to its former glory with “The Proposition”.

The story is fairly straightforward. The Burns brothers are notorious criminals who have terrorized their little corner of Australia for years. Two of the brothers leave the gang, wanting no more of their wicked ways. But the law wants its piece of flesh.

So the local head of the police nabs the two brothers and offers a deal. In order to spare the youngest a hanging on Christmas Day, the middle brother must kill the eldest.

A simple plot and one set amidst the backdrop of an era in Australian history where the white man was trying to “civilize” the nation, ridding it of any unruly aboriginals who didn’t see the error of their ancient ways.

To try and accomplish the daunting task of crafting a good Western, in a cinematic landscape supposedly bereft of moviegoers craving a good Western, the task fell to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave.

I suppose before I get to specific critiques, let me first say that I am a huge fan of Australian cinema and do my best to catch any and all Aussie films that land stateside. There is a vibe and an almost poetic cadence that so many Australian films are imbued with that I find mesmerizing and enchanting.

That effect was on display in “The Proposition” but without my seemingly supernatural affinity for Australian film, I don’t know I would have been all that impressed in the end.

First, there is the script. Nick Cave is probably more well known as a musician and he used a decent amount of song and poetry in the film to convey the emotions of the story. I’d like to say that it worked for me but I found the story lacking. It was as if Cave couldn’t decide if this was a shoot ‘em up or about a lawman looking for righteous justice or a psychological study of a man set against his brother.

In trying to accomplish all three, the ability to do any one of them really well got lost.

Hillcoat’s direction takes a page from the script and fluctuates between moments of brutal violence and long, drawn out shots of characters silently conveying their thoughts and intentions. In trying to do both, the film overall felt a bit uneven.

The acting, however, is terrific. For a relatively small film, they were able to gather quite an impressive cast including Guy Pearce, Emily Watson Ray Winstone, David Wenham, John Hurt and Danny Huston. All are veteran actors and brought real credibility and substance to their characters.

I also liked two of the relative unknowns – Richard Wilson and Tom Budge. Wilson played the youngest Burns brother with a sweetness and childlike vulnerability that was perhaps the only sympathetic character in the entire film. And Budge plays a ruthless member of the Burns gang who delivers the best effect of the film, shattering a man’s head with a rifle shot as if it was a ripe papaya.

Going back to the sympathy issue, I did enjoy that perhaps aside from Wilson’s character, no one is a truly likable person. Everyone is shaded in grey. The bloodlust of the town mirrors the ruthlessness of the Burns gang. The savagery of the people is echoed by the desolate nature of the landscape. It’s almost beautiful in its poetic nature.

Winston’s portrayal of a lawman trying to bring justice to a town that only wants blood is probably the next most sympathetic character in the film. Without any real dialogue to help him out, his ability to use defeated glances and almost zombie-like mannerisms to show how uncomfortable he has become with the proposition he struck is amazing.

So putting all of that together, how does “The Proposition” add up? Well, if you are a big fan of Westerns, this is about the only one that’s been made in 3 years so you don’t have much of a choice.

I ended up liking it but perhaps that’s mostly because of the hardened and weary characters in the film. What makes Westerns so great is the use of anti-heroes. Few other genres can use that archetype as effectively. I’m giving “The Proposition” a 3.5 out of 5. Though I would have liked for it to choose its story direction a bit more clearly and for the people behind me to have shut up once in a while, I enjoyed it overall.

I did feel a little disappointed by the end but that was because I had very high expectations stemming from other reviews, awards it has received and the fact that it’s an Australian film. Check those expectations at the door and you’ll enjoy the ride just fine.