By: Lauren Duffey
“One must live…
One must decide.”
Set in the 1880’s, The Proposition is an intense drama that follows a trio of outlawed brothers after a brutal rape and murder. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are captured by the British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) following the crime. Captain Stanley makes a proposition to Charlie to find and kill his brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) who the Captain believes is the mastermind behind the brothers’ crimes. If Charlie does not follow through with the proposition within nine days then the Captain will kill the youngest brother, Mikey, on Christmas Day.
Classification- Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time- 104 minutes
Country- Australia/ UK
Release Dates- 6 October 2005 (Australia)
10 March 2006 (UK)
Box Office Figures- £205,594 (UK, opening weekend)
£446,092 (UK, gross as of 19 March 2006)
Guy Pearce………………….Charlie Burns
Danny Huston………………Arthur Burns
Ray Winstone……………….Captain Stanley
Emily Watson………………Martha Stanley
David Wenham……………..Eden Fletcher
Richard Wilson……………..Mikey Burns
Tom Budge………………….Samuel Stote
John Hurt…………………...Jellon Lamb
Director- John Hillcoat
John Hillcoat was born in Brisbane, Australia but also grew up in America, Canada, and Europe. He studied at the Swinburne Film School in Melbourne, where he directed the short dramas The Blonde's Date with Death (1981) and Frankie and Johnny (1982).
After having a successful career in directing and editing music videos, some of which won international awards, he co-wrote and directed his first feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) which was nominated for nine Australian Film Institute Awards. To Have and to Hold (1996) was his second feature film which also received AFI nomination. John also directed the London side to a feature documentary on Harry Smith (2002). The Proposition (2005) is his latest third and latest feature film.
Scriptwriter- Nick Cave
Born in Melbourne, Nick Cave has been involved with bands such as the Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. He started his film relationship with Hillcoat when he co-wrote and composed the score of ‘Ghosts…Of the Civil Undead’. He also did the same with Hillcoat’s To Have and to Hold.
Cave was originally meant to only write the music for the film but started to write the script after John Hillcoat suggested the idea to him. He then took only three weeks to write the entire script for The Proposition.
Executive Producer- Sara Giles, Michael Hamlyn, Chris Auty, Norman Humphrey, James Atherton, Michael Henry, Robert Jones
Producer-Chris Brown, Jackie O’Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers
Music- Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Sound- Craig Walmsley, Paul Davies, Richard Davey, Ian Morgan
Cinematography- Benoît Delhomme
Film Editor- Jon Gregory
Production Designer- Chris Kennedy
Costume Designer- Margot Wilson
Production Company- Autonomous/Surefire Film Productions LLP/Jackie O Production
Awards & Nominations:
Australian Film Institute-
WON: Best Cinematography (Benoît Delhomme)
Best Costume Design (Margot Wilson)
Best Original Music Score (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis)
Best Production Design (Chris Kennedy), 2005.
NOMINATED for Best Direction (John Hillcoat)
Best Editing (Jon Gregory)
Best Film (Chris Brown, Jackie O’Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers), Best Lead Actor (Guy Pearce)
Beast Lead Actor (Ray Winstone)
Best Original Screenplay (Nick Cave)
Best Sound (Craig Walmsley, Paul Davies, Richard Davey, Ian Morgan) Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), 2005.
Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards-
WON: Best Cinematography (Benoît Delhomme)
Best Original Music Score (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis), 2005.
WON: Best Cinematography (Benoît Delhomme)
Best Feature Film (John Hillcoat, Chris Brown, Jackie O’Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers)
Best Music (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis)
Best Production Design (Chris Kennedy), 2005.
NOMINATED for Best Actor (Guy Pearce)
Best Actress (Emily Watson)
Best Direction (John Hillcoat)
Best Editing (Jon Gregory)
Best Script (Nick Cave), 2005.
Links and Bibliography to Critical Review:
INFORMATION ON FILM-
www.theproposition.co.uk/ - Original site from the UK. This is a beautiful, in-depth website consisting of gallery photos, an insight on Hillcoat’s vision as well as interviews and information on the film.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0421238/ - imdb.com- The International movie Database is the most comprehensive and informative site on the net for any movie.
http://www.e.bell.ca/filmfest/2005/films_description.asp?id=217 – The Toronto International Film Festival Website gives an accurate synopsis as well as the list of cast and crew.
http://www.afc.gov.au/filmsandawards/recentfilms/cannes05/feature_144.aspx - Australian film Commission website provides brief biographies and film histories of the director as well as the producers.
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=10963&s=Features -Urban Cine-File website supplies two in-depth interviews (found below) and a full article on the genre of the movie. (Upon clicking this link, I was not able to receive the complete article, but instead going through imdb.com and clicking the “miscellaneous” link.
http://thecia.com.au/reviews/p/proposition.shtml -Cinematic Intelligence Agency, Review of movie as well as pictures of the movie and cast and awards listing.
A powerfully gripping story that tells of two brothers in conflict, the film has a truly epic sweep.
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/reviews/review_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1001096921 – The Film Journal International gives a concise synopsis with a positive review of the movie.
A mesmerizing Australian western that occurs in a raw and brutal land.
http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=12771 –eFilmcritic.com lists that 57% of viewers who rated the movie says that it is “worth a look” (this is the second highest rating)
-…an uncompromising and brave piece of cinema which should help put the Australian film industry back on the map.
http://www.theage.com.au/news/film-reviews/the-proposition/2005/10/06/1128191821372.html - Theage.com.au is an Australian website that gives the most praise of the movie.
Easily one of the best Australian films in more than a decade and one of the most skilful westerns ever…
http://www.twitchfilm.net/archives/003369.html - Twitch website gives many candid reviews on movies, and an excellent review of this movie.
-…not a weak performance or character to be found.
http://www.futuremovies.co.uk/review.asp?ID=483 –Future movies.com gives The Proposition a rating of six stars out of ten. Although this is the least positive of the reviews I have listed, the UK website is only disappointed with some of the elements which other reviews praise.
-…I'm beginning to realise that while I've been picking through a list of faults, The Proposition is really a very watchable film.
http://www.aceshowbiz.com/movie/proposition_the - Review quotes and ratings, with no less than three out of five stars given.
-…a superbly poetic and original film, one of the year's best…” (In Film Australia)
http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s1474287.htm - ABC.Net- Interview with John Hillcoat, Nick Cave, and Guy Pearce
JOHN HILLCOAT: Nation-building is founded on violence and so the theme of violence from the very big empire point of view right down to the very clumsy day-to-day violence. We definitely wanted to look at it in terms of how it actually affects people.
http://www.futuremovies.co.uk/filmmaking.asp?ID=159 – Future Movies- Nick Cave and John Hillcoat interview
NICK CAVE:We didn’t want it to sound like an American western that had been dumped in Australia. There’s a certain incompetence that exists in the Australian character today, a real savagery and cruelty behind that kind of attitude.
http://www.futuremovies.co.uk/filmmaking.asp?ID=160 – Guy Pearce interview (same site as above)
GUY PEARCE: The thing that has affected me the most in doing the film is what we found out about the aboriginal culture and lifestyle. I’m reluctant, like most Australians, to look into white settlement and what really went on. But I want to face it, and I want to understand the repercussions that continue to this day, how aboriginal people are experiencing life in Australia because of the people who took it over.
http://www.pixelsurgeon.com/interviews/interview.php?id=226 – Pixel Surgeon- interview with Nick Cave
NICK CAVE: Nobody could even open their mouth without a fly crawling into it.
http://www.filmfocus.co.uk/lookat.asp?FilmbaseID=20632&FeatureID=74 – Film Focus- Interview with John Hillcoat
JOHN HILLCOAT: It was just a vague idea initially of doing an Australian Western. How the Outback wasn't won! It's rippled on through the centuries, our history. The conflict with the aboriginals and just being at ease as a country itself.
http://www.filmmonthly.com/Profiles/Articles/NickCaveProposition/NickCaveProposition.html - Interview with Nick Cave
NICK CAVE: I just wanted to work out how to go about the process of writing a screenplay and as it turned out it felt a very natural thing for me to do." Natural, because "it is just telling a yarn and story, then basically you just write.
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=10946&s=Interviews - Interview with Guy Pearce (website can be viewed in full text through the “Miscellaneous” link on imdb.com website)
GUY PEARCE: To make a film where the character and the development of character is there and is allowed to breathe is so inspirational for everybody, not just for the actors, but wardrobe, make up and so on.
http://www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=10949&s=Interviews - Interview with Nick Cave and John Hillcoat (same as above)
NICK CAVE: Johnny’s big on research and he does an enormous amount, so if I write something that was wrong …he’d be very quick to point it out.
JOHN HILLCOAT: We wanted it to be mythical, to incorporate the clash with the British Empire and the clash with Aboriginals – and also treat it in a brutally truthful way, very matter of fact.
Note: These reviews are only a sampling of the many reviews, interviews, and informative links on the internet. There will undoubtedly be many more after the film is shown in the United States and is more widely viewed. All of the sources to my essay and arguments below are from the links above.
Since this film was very new when writing this, and since the internet is continuously growing in popularity for all media resources, there was a large online presence. Although The Proposition had not entered the U.S. theatres yet, many American websites had posted “looking-forward to” sites on their reviews page. It will be interesting to see American reviews of the film once it comes out.
Critical Review of Film:
Director John Hillcoat wastes no time to show the violent reality of life in the 1800’s with The Proposition. The opening scene shows immediate gunfire as a multitude of bullets are pelted through tin walls killing and wounding the occupants inside. Immediately afterwards the story jumps right into the heart of the plot; three brothers are accused of committing a brutal rape and a murder of a settler family and the Captain of the town creatively tries to capture the ringleader by positioning the brothers against each other. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) tells middle brother Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) that he will imprison and hang his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), on Christmas Day unless Charlie finds and kills his older brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). Stanley believes that Arthur is the ringleader of the brothers and is most responsible for the crime. He feels that Charlie would do anything to save his younger brother and is the best person to uncover Arthur’s whereabouts.
We see Charlie’s torn emotions as he must leave caring for his fourteen year old and mentally-slow brother to search and decide whether or not to kill his older and also mentally unstable poetic-speaking brother. Once Charlie finds Arthur, in which he is almost killed twice in the process, he finds Arthur constantly making references to family. Charlie lies to Arthur about why he has left Mikey leading Arthur to believe that Charlie escaped just to be with him again.
Meanwhile, we see the kinder and also emotionally torn Captain Stanley as he tries to live the most normal life he can in the desolate Australian terrain with his wife Martha (Emily Watson). It is apparent that they care very much for each other and are trying to make the best of a futile situation. As the town discovers that Stanley has let the more dangerous brother free and kept the most innocent one to jail, the atmosphere becomes uneasy and almost hostile towards Stanley and Martha. Martha does not know why her husband has jailed a young boy or the extent of her pregnant friend’s death (the woman who was raped and brutally killed) until she overhears a conversation with her husband and a heartless official (Eden Fletcher, David Wenham). Although Stanley wishes to hold Mikey free from harm until Charlie returns but Fletcher pushes for 100 lashes for his “crime.” Martha wishes justice to be served as she pleads to Stanley, “What if I was her?” and watches terrified as Mickey is flogged publicly.
Arthur figures out that Charlie has lied to him about Mikey and they set off to rescue him from the jail and to seek revenge on Captain Stanley and anyone else who steps in their way. It is apparent that Arthur thrives off of brutality and violence whereas Charlie just wishes to rescue Mikey. This leads to the bloody, intense, and gruesome climax and finish of the film where no one escapes in this unavoidable tragedy.
John Hillcoat’s films leave an impact on the audience once the film is over. The intense emotions and deeper values are left lingering with the audience. Viewing The Proposition kept me on an emotional rollercoaster. I watched in awe at the breathtaking Australian scenery while at the same time feeling as uncomfortable as the characters were forced to live in the harsh conditions. Hillcoat remarks in an interview that at times the temperature was in the 50’s (Celsius) while most of the cast was dressed in heavy wool and layers to preserve the authenticity of the time period (Future Movies). Undoubtedly, it was not hard for the characters to portray their misery which clearly was projected onto the audience. One cannot watch this film without feeling awkwardly uneasy. This is also because of the bluntness and realness of the characters.
All of the characters are not shown as either good or bad, but a twisted mix of the two, leaving all of them unnervingly real to the audience. Cave states in an interview, “You know, that there's good and evil in everybody. But most of the time people are just wandering around in the dark trying to survive and figure out how to live.”(ABC.Net). This is especially true for the time period of the film where there was an attempt to replicate the life the settlers lived in their homeland, but were pushed to their limits both mentally and physically when they realized their efforts were futile in the unforgiving Australian terrain.
As in most of the Australian films I have viewed, I have always felt the portrayal of the weaker feminine characters acquiescing to the dominating masculine men. This was the case for the Proposition as the plot revolved around an impregnated woman getting raped and then her whole family getting murdered and the house destroyed. The only main woman character (and only one of two to have speaking roles) is shown to be frail and intimidated by the world around her. Martha, the wife of desperately worn Captain Stanley, appears to be the only good character that is untouched by the world around her, but even that is proved untrue by the end of the film. Although she stands up to her husband and wants to be involved in his matters, she can not physically or emotionally handle herself when faced with the harshness of the world around her. Her character does fit with the time period when women were to be obedient submissive wives.
I chose to research and critique this film because of the positive reviews I found while originally researching Hillcoat’s second feature-film, To Have and To Hold. I was disturbed as well as intrigued of the originality and uniqueness of Hillcoat’s production as well as Cave’s music. Hoping that The Proposition would carry the same uneasiness but come out even better, I watched it, and was not disappointed. It was not only a better film, but it showed that Hillcoat’s style gets better with age and experience. His movies do not want to hide or whitewash any of the harsh realities that can be exposed. Although I was taken back from the excessive use of blood and violence in both films, Hillcoat used these scenes well just to give an extra blunt “punch” to the storyline. Hillcoat explains, “…you see the consequences of the violence. In fact a lot of the story is about how it impacts on people’s lives as opposed to just the sensation of it. But there is always a sensation to violence, no matter how it’s represented.” (Pixel Surgeon). He also makes it a point to leave no age, gender, or race untouched by the violence. Although the violent scenes were quick, most of them just exposed the aftermath of the violence done off screen. The scenes were long enough, however, to expose enough blood and violence to leave the image on the mind long afterwards it is over.
For these reasons I believe that this film is good enough to be a top rated independent film but not a film that will receive a wide-spread mainstream acknowledgement as a “Blockbuster” type. It is my belief that the film will gain more popularity as word of mouth spreads and will be a strong film example to early Australian history.
It is interesting to write about this film while is has been viewed in prominent countries but not the “film capital” of America. Both Australia and the UK received the film well with a great online presence and positive reviews. John Hillcoat admitted that he was nervous about the success of his film the day before it was released in the UK. “I think that's a great shame; films don't have a chance to build good word of mouth or anything, it's all just focused on the opening weekend,” he says of opening weekend movies. During the time when The Proposition was released in the UK, it was running against other well-publicised movies such as V for Vendetta and Shooting Dogs (both movies with John Hurt in the cast). The Proposition did well for its first weekend reaching in the UK £205,594 and grossing at £446,092 as of 19 March 2006 (imdb.com).
In Australia, many are hailing is as the best Australian epic period-piece ever made. It received 10 wins and 13 nominations in Australian film festivals and Institutes (imdb.com), and the list is sure to grow as it is viewed across the rest of the world.
Circumstances of Production-
There is not much information on the budget that Hillcoat and Cave had to work with but Hillcoat does state in an interview that there were times when the set had to close because of financial resistance. The financiers also pressured Hillcoat to remove certain elements of the film and implement others, but nothing of too much hindrance (Film Focus).
One of the major concerns while filming was the importance of conserving and respecting the cultural Aboriginal heritage. A professional worked full-time on the set and helped out the cast and crew by educating them in the Aboriginal heritage. The DVD features the process for which everyone had to undergo to ensure that they were following the wishes of the Aboriginal community. One of the exercises to acclimate the cast and crew to their surroundings were having everyone rub dirt all over themselves as a way of becoming closer to the land and as a respect for Aboriginal spirits around them. There were also places where the filmmakers could not shoot due to sacred Aboriginal sites. Everyone said this element was vital to the value of the film and educated the actors for themselves and their characters alike.
John Hillcoat is known as a person of research and is adamant of having his work accurate and authentic. He explains in an interview:
“…I'm very big on research. I started collecting all of this material and was really just looking for a simple story strong enough to hang everything on. That was the struggle and why it had a long gestation period. I'd had the idea, initially, back when I was a film student. But I knew it was too ambitious a project for my first film or even my second film. It was a long-time coming” (Film Focus).
As Hillcoat began to produce the movie, all details became meticulous. The entire wardrobe was made just for the film with all of the authentic, heavy materials and even hand-made buttons. Most of the cast embraced this aspect, feeling that it helped to define their role for the time period. Guy Pearce, playing the lead role as Charlie Burns, was especially meticulous with detail. He grew his hair instead of wearing a wig for the role and Hillcoat remarks that he had more conversations about Pearce’s “hair and teeth than his character” (Film Focus).
Perhaps the reason why Hillcoat and Cave collaborate so well together is due to the fact that they are complementing opposites. Cave openly states that he is not one to research, but did look into Aboriginal history and culture (by the wish of Hillcoat) to portray an accurate and unique view of how they dealt with the settlers while trying to survive. Strong elements of the Aboriginal culture are seen, felt, and heard, as the didgeridoo is played in the musical score throughout much of the movie. The more hidden part of history of violence between “blacks-on-blacks” and “blacks-on-whites” is also brought out into the limelight. Hillcoat and Cave remark that the Aboriginal actors were excited to show the world the truth of their history and that they did fight back against their white opposition. This accurate history also played into the fact of the time that no one could trust anyone and there are no heroes in reality.
Hillcoat’s goal was to revitalise the previous thoughts on Australian history. He was successful in doing so by creating an epic tale that held strong to the scenery, Aboriginal culture, and the imposing settlers’ struggle for survival.
Position of Film-
I feel that this film will have a stronger presence once it is viewed in the U.S. Although it is planned to only be viewed in select cities and film festivals, this is an independent film that will gain popularity through word of mouth. Americans have always been fans of the “wild west” and to see a movie that they can relate to in the context of settlers to a new world; they will also be amazed by the vast differences such as the terrain, natives, and the basis for immigration itself. This film is what Australia needs to distinguish them from the rest of the cinema world. Since the overall reviews of the film have been positive, and it is made to be viewed in epic proportions, there is much potential in the growth and knowledge of Hillcoat’s work.
Besides being a film that outsiders of Australia can view with awe, Australians themselves should regard this film with much value to their own heritage. Although many issues are bluntly thrown in the face of the audience which may cause negative feelings of Australians who wish to not face the issues, it is because of this bluntness that Australians should embrace their culture. This is also positive for Aboriginals, as they not only were able to show more of their history and culture, but also had their say behind the scenes. This respect and acknowledgement is a forward step for their history to be known.
In Context with Australian cinema and genre-
The Proposition is no doubt a true Australian western. Though Australian westerns have been made before, this one stands out in its different approach to early survival on the barren yet beautiful land. Hillcoat felt that the “true grit” of the Australian western “had yet to be achieved” and so he produced one of epic proportions (Urban Cine-File). This is a film that can only be made from Australia due to the scenery and the savagery. Many universal themes are brought up, but Hillcoat adds a more extreme touch to constantly remind his audience that his film is unique to Australia. Anyone that has been in the outback during the summer knows that the flies are profuse and the heat is unbearable. They see the sky light on fire every night during the sunset. Hillcoat shows everything true to its form. Unlike most American western films, there are no heroes here. There is good and bad, but it all becomes tangled together. American westerns deal with a milder climate, and follow with their films. Due to the harsh weather, it is only fitting that the action and characters be just as unforgiving. Although the classic Australian accent is not apparent, it has not yet emerged into the country during the time. Aboriginals also obviously make the film Australian, whereas there is no culture quite like them. This film is also said to belong to crime, drama, and thriller categories, but I feel that these are merely adjectives that fall under the Australian western genre. The history of Australia is founded on all of these elements. This movie will open doors as well as minds to the new aspect on Australian history and film and should be regarded with full Australian value.