I was expecting something more eclectic from The Proposition, an Australian Western written by Nick Cave. I’m not sure if Australia has their own variation on the Western–I suppose something like Ned Kelly might qualify. The Proposition is an American Western set in Australia, with the Aborigines standing in for the Indians. It might be historically accurate–probably is–but it’s still a Western. Cave’s seen some Westerns too, but the most visible influence for the Western part of The Proposition are Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting. The Proposition is an improvement on either of those films, because Cave’s got something going on I’ve never seen in a Western before… the bad guys are really the bad guys.
It’s not a situation where there are no good guys (like Unforgiven, though, arguably Ned is a good guy in Unforgiven)–the sheriff character is actually a good guy in The Proposition. I haven’t seen Ray Winstone in anything but Last Orders and I don’t remember him, but he’s amazing in The Proposition. His relationship with his wife, played by Emily Watson (who’s rather good, but not as good as I expected her to be), is Cave’s masterwork in this film. It’s a beautiful, complicated relationship in the middle of a hard, violent Western. It’s a touching and romantic and it’s a rare thing–not just in a Western–to have a marriage start and end a film with the couple caring for each other. There aren’t even any hiccups in it… It’s wonderful.
Unfortunately, the Western is not. The film follows around Guy Pearce, whose performance consists of being really, really skinny and maybe having a broken nose. It’s the worst work I’ve seen from him, though the film doesn’t give him much to do. The film, however, gives Danny Huston even less to do and makes him out as an outback Charles Manson, but he’s still quite good. John Hurt’s cameo is bad and the film wastes David Wenham (who would have been great in Pearce’s role) as a fop.
The director, Hillcoat, is fantastic. While he frames the shots like any good Western, the Australian Outback provides some surreal scenery. The film doesn’t take full advantage of that surrealism, which is occasionally amplified by Cave’s score, and the third act loses the directorial imagination. The style of that act doesn’t match the rest of the film and the writing fails to convince… for the first time, The Proposition becomes predictable. Still, it’s got that excellent marriage between Winstone and Watson going for it. Hopefully Cave will write his next film sooner than he did this one (there are seventeen years between his first script and The Proposition).