What’s the best Australian western ever made? Granted, it’s not a question likely to keep many people awake at night searching for an answer. Indeed, up until a few years ago, there wouldn’t have been much to choose from. Since 1990’s Quigley Down Under, an entertaining little gem that saw Tom Selleck and Alan Rickman face off against a backdrop of grand Australian landscapes and a crazed Laura San Giacomo (it’s much better than I can do justice to here), there’s been little to get excited about.
Two dispiriting ‘comedy’ westerns – one from Yahoo Serious (whatever happened to him?), one from Paul Hogan (we know what happened to him, he made Almost An Angel) – were followed a decade later by 2003’s underwhelming Ned Kelly.
All of which makes The Proposition an even more enticing prospect, while posing a question all of its own: why, when the Australian landscape looks as breathtaking as it does here, and with a history as bloody and scarred as it is, has it not seen more westerns?
Whatever the reason, director John Hillcoat makes up for the dearth, and for both Serious and Hogan’s efforts, with a film that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Like a dry run for his current adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Proposition tells of a world where morality is in short supply and individuals live under constant threat of violence.
Yet, where Hillcoat’s latest is so weighed down by desolation and despair that it’s just as gruelling watching The Road as it probably is to walk in it, The Proposition feels far more satisfying and rounded. Set in colonial Australia in the 1880s, it hints at the bloody conflict that raged within Australia’s early years, etching its characters as opposing forces at play in the nation’s history.
Ray Winstone’s Morris Stanley, a British officer sent to the Outback on a mission to civilise the land, with prim wife Emily Watson in tow, comes to represent the futility of British imperialism trying to impose its will on a land that can’t be tamed. Trying to bring justice to the Outback, he captures Guy Pearce’s Irish outlaw Charlie Burns, sending him out to kill his ruthlessly barbaric older brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), for the safe release of his younger brother.
As Arthur, Huston is as chilling and cold-blooded as they come, cut from the same McCarthy cloth as No Country For Old Men‘s Anton Chigurh. He’s the sadistic violence visited upon Australia’s Aboriginals, who refer to him as an animal. Caught between him and Stanley is Pearce’s Charlie, wrestling between the life of violence he’s known and the lure of a life without bloodshed that he so desperately wants.
It’s an uncompromising film, with moments of wince-inducing violence that come in fits and bursts but linger long in the memory. And McCarthy’s tense, thick voice can be heard at every turn. It’s sparse, yet heavy with atmosphere. But it’s also strangely hypnotic, Hillcoat turning a script by Nick Cave into one of his macabre songs writ large, images flowing seamlessly into one another like Cave’s lyrics.
They’re on here, too, played over the end credits as a finale to the soundtrack by Cave and Warren Ellis that haunts throughout. In the end, The Proposition emerges, not only as one of the best Australian Westerns yet, but a great western in itself. If you’ve the stomach for it, Hillcoat’s precursor to The Road makes for a far more impressive journey.
There aren’t many extras to enjoy here, but the disc’s trump card is how gorgeous The Proposition looks on Blu-ray. It’s a film bathed in light – sometimes golden, sometimes almost blinding white – and the picture is something to behold. The film’s barren desert landscapes are so vivid they’ll make you thirsty for all the dust.
On the extras, there’s only one featurette to get excited about: a 27-minute ‘making of’ that does a good job of collecting the main cast and crew together via a series of interviews on set. It sags a little in the middle, becoming a bit of a love-in on how everyone enjoyed working on it, but then brings it back with a focus on the Aboriginal community. Accompanied by Cave & Ellis’ sumptuous soundtrack, it’s a very easy and enjoyable watch.
After that, all that’s left is a trailer. Great film, lovely transfer, disappointing extras.
The Film:The Disc:
The Proposition is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.