The Proposition

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Review by Jane Freebury

It’s said that one of the reasons Hollywood has snapped up Australian cinematographers to shoot movies like Dances with Wolves, Chicago and Cold Mountain, is because they bring a new perspective to quintessential American stories. This came to mind when I saw that Frenchman Benoit Delhomme was behind the camera for this new Australian film, The Proposition.

Filmed in the outback 900 kilometres west of Rockhampton, the terrain looks marvellously harsh and inhospitable, and it’s interesting that through Delhomme’s lens it looks both strange and familiar at the same time.

Add to this the haunting and pulsing music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a mix of Celtic songs of lament with Aboriginal rhythms, and you have a richly textured fabric for the human drama that unfolds.

This tale from the Australian frontier begins when a police captain (Ray Winstone) makes a deal with the devil. He will spare the life of young Mikey Burns if his brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) will agree to track down and kill their older brother, a wild and murderous Irishman who is holed up with his gang in the distant hills.

The good captain is aware of the dangerous charisma of bushrangers, and he is determined to bring Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) to justice, and show he’s a man like any other. Stanley’s grim vow to ‘civilise this place’ is vain hope from the start, and you fear for his frail wife (Emily Watson).

Charlie has nine days to find his brother if the youngster is to be saved from the gallows. It involves a trek through treacherous country, outwitting the bounty hunters who also want Arthur, and avoiding the indigenous inhabitants who have seen one white man too many.

Some of the movie’s scenes of brutality are hard to stomach, but they seem to me to be in keeping with the time and place. I was reminded of films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Wake in Fright, and also some of the most elegiac and troubling of American Westerns, The Searchers and Shane.

The anticipation of violence stalks you from the start and who could be surprised by this mood from the makers of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead. But Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have done better this time – this is a fine movie.

4.5 stars