After a bloody shoot-out in a brothel, determined lawman Captain Stanley makes career criminal Charlie Burns a proposition: he will spare his terrified younger brother Mikey from the noose if Charlie will hunt down and kill his older brother Arthur, believed to be primarily responsible for a string of vicious attacks on isolated homesteads. Reluctantly, Charlie agrees; but, of course, nothing is ever that simple. Though he has long disliked Arthur's behaviour, Charlie is still bound by family loyalty. Meanwhile, Stanley struggles to maintain his authority over a trigger-happy police force and to protect his innocent wife from the ugliness of the world around her.

The Proposition is a bold departure for Nick Cave, following, as it does, the trail of destruction resulting from a murder, which might easily have been the subject of one of his songs. In examining what happens afterwards and how a simple community tears itself apart, he is taking on a whole new range of psychological issues and, by and large, handles them very well. However, this is very clearly a first script (that he wrote it in just three weeks shows). It suffers from problems with pacing and is unwieldy in its attempts to weave together parallel strands of story, as Stanley and Charlie each attempt to bring about justice in their own ways.

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Superb vignettes (such as Mrs Stanley's walk through a town full of people who hate her husband and/or have sexual designs on her) showcase a skill which Cave cannot sustain throughout the longer narrative. Intermittent references to his songs will amuse fans but sometimes make the dialogue jar, and his trademark eloquent verbosity sits uncomfortably in the mouths of less sophisticated characters. At times, this causes the film to verge on the surreal, which works in its favour, but it's a difficult balancing act.

The greatest strength of The Proposition is its cast, with Ray Winstone (Stanley), especially effective as a man who seems at first unrelentingly brutal yet gradually becomes more human. Sadly, Emily Watson (Mrs Stanley) isn't up to her usual standard, though she's supported by first- class costuming and set design which help to convey her desperate isolation. There's a rather peculiar turn from John Hurt, as a deranged bounty hunter, which viewers will either love or hate. Richard Wilson is excellent as young Mikey, notably in one of the film's most horrific scenes, conveying real terror and all the hideousness of his plight without ever seeming unduly whiny. This is quite a trick to pull off in a Western - albeit an Aussie Western - and it is superbly handled. The grand sense of doom and destiny is there as it should be, but the characters are refreshingly real.

Many fans of Cave will, of course, be drawn to this film for its soundtrack. There's not actually much new material here from Cave himself, and it's not his strongest work, though it functions well enough. Warren Ellis' score, however, is superb, and is very effective in expressing the vastness and eeriness of the Australian outback. This is complemented by Benoit Delhomme's stunning cinematography. Though it doesn't always work as a story, The Proposition is irresistibly beautiful, perfectly counterpointing its necessarily explicit violence.

It is certainly an interesting debut, and one hopes to see still better things from Cave The Screenwriter.

Reviewed on: 08 May 2006
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The Proposition packshot
In the 1880s, an Australian outlaw is offered a pardon if he tracks down and kills his psychotic elder brother.
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Read more The Proposition reviews:

Anton Bitel ****1/2
Angus Wolfe Murray ****1/2
Themroc ***

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Nick Cave

Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Richard Wilson, Robert Morgan, David Gulpilil, Tom Budge

Year: 2005

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia/UK


Sundance 2006

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