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Film / The Proposition

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Cpt. Stanley: Now, suppose you tell me what it is I want from you?
Charlie Burns: You want me to kill me brother.
Cpt. Stanley: I want you to kill your brother.

The Proposition is a 2005 film directed by John Hillcoat and written by Nick Cave, who also composed the soundtrack with his Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis. The film is a Western set in colonial Australia in the 1880s, and was described by Cave as a story full of beautiful sadness and longing, intercut with moments of intense violence.

In the rural outback, Irish criminals Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger, mentally handicapped brother Mikey are caught by Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone) and his troopers. Stanley offers a deal: Charlie has until Christmas Day to find and kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), leader of the feared and depraved Burns gang, or else Mikey will be hanged by the local authorities. As Charlie faces the question of which brother will live and which will die, Captain Stanley fights to bring civilisation — and perhaps justice — to the brutal, desolate landscape.

The film also stars Emily Watson as Martha, Captain Stanley's wife; David Wenham as Eden Fletcher, the extremely British pillar of the local community; and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, an elderly alcoholic bounty hunter.

Cave, Ellis, and Hillcoat also collaborate on the 2009 film The Road, and again on 2012's Lawless.

This Aussie Western includes examples of:

  • Boom, Headshot!: There are several:
    • Sam shooting the Aborigine who speared Charlie (we see half of the man's head blown off).
    • Charlie shooting Jellon Lamb as Arthur tortures him as a Mercy Kill.
    • Charlie shooting Sam while Sam tries to rape Martha Stanley.
  • Boxed Crook: Charlie is used by Captain Stanley to track down his brother. Fletcher is quite unhappy about the idea of letting a criminal loose in order to catch a worse one.
  • Cain and Abel: Down to their first initials; C and A. Ironically, the one with the "A" name is much worse.
  • Crapsack World: Life in the outback is portrayed as a dirty, hardscrabble existence in a dusty wasteland populated by brutal bandits and equally brutal and corrupt lawmen.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Arthur Burns is a sadist who likes to inflict these on his victims, such as Jellon Lamb.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Of Mikey (not really the hero, but still a victim figure) being flogged. If you listen carefully, you'll also notice that he's only given 39 lashes out of the full 100 by the end of the scene.
  • Disposable Sex Worker: No-one appears bothered by the death of the Chinese prostitutes killed in the opening shootout.
  • Dreaming of a White Christmas: It's Australia, so it's a broiling hot summer. It doesn't stop Captain Stanley and Martha from imagining they are at home in England. At one point, Martha even uses cotton as snowflakes.
  • Dull Surprise: Arthur's reaction when his brother Charlie, fed up with his sociopathic behavior, shoots him in the stomach after shooting Sam in the head. In the former instance, it's also an instance of Major Injury Underreaction.
  • Empathic Environment: Oh, the infinite and desolate plains of the Australian Outback during the blood-red sunset.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Or in this case, younger brothers.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: In the backstory, Charlie and Mikey both abandoned Arthur after his Moral Event Horizon crossing. It's pretty clear that Charlie was himself a robber and probably a murderer as well, but what Arthur and Samuel did was unforgivable. Charlie also realizes that it isn't fair to draw his mildly mentally handicapped younger brother Mikey into the life of a bandit and outlaw where the most likely eventual outcome is to be shot or hanged.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Much of the soundtrack has names like "Sad Violin Thing".
  • Faux Affably Evil: Arthur's actions, other characters reactions and his past make it clear that he lost his affability a long time ago. In the end it turns out he doesn't even care for his own family anymore.
  • Forced to Watch: Two instances.
    • After the first couple of dozen lashings, it's clear that the flogging of Mikey has become a slow execution by torture, and many of the leering townspeople and even Eden Fletcher look away from the gore. Captain Stanley hands Fletcher the bloody lash as if to tell him to at least own up to his own actions by watching.
    • Arthur Burns beats up Captain Stanley but leaves him alive so that he could be forced to watch as Samuel rapes his (Stanley's) wife.
  • Genre Deconstruction: Of The Western. A reviewer noted that the great authority figure in this genre, the sheriff, is emasculated here. It's most evident in the scenes where Captain Stanley has his authority completely undermined by Eden Fletcher, and is reduced to a pathetic bystander.
  • Hanging Judge: The pointlessly cruel Eden Fletcher.
  • Hate Sink: Eden Fletcher is arrogant, sadistic, and cowardly, and uses his wealth and power to lord over everybody else in town, including the police. He's show to be despicable to the point that even the murderous members of the Burns gang seem sympathetic by comparison.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Stanley and Fletcher fight over this.
  • Land Down Under: Played in a very un-stereotypical way
  • Large Ham: Jellon Lamb, especially when he's drunk, and Sam when he's pretending to be a policeman.
  • Mercy Kill:
    • Charlie shoots Jellon Lamb in the head rather than watching Arthur slowly dismember him alive with a knife.
    • After Charlie shoots Arthur in the stomach, he takes a second shot to the chest so that he would die more quickly and painlessly. Arthur lives long enough to walk quite a distance even with the chest wound.
  • Mighty Whitey: Subverted and defied: the police think the Aborigines are sheltering Arthur, but in fact they hate and fear him. Some of them believe he's a werewolf.
  • Mood Dissonance: In many ways, The Proposition is a story of contrasts. The violent events and the natural beauty of the land - the outlaws even make mention of the beautiful sunset at one point. The stars in a field of blue seen from under a withered tree and then from behind prison bars. The genteel Christmas setting and the savage torture of the Stanleys at the end.
    • The director has also pointed out the extreme dissonance in the "civilized" Victorian era and the violent settling of Australia. The outlaws are destroying the Victorian English attempts at beauty and order in the Australian wilderness, best represented by the trail of destruction at the end when the scruffy criminal Charlie stomps through the rose garden and the white fence.
  • Morality Pet: Two-Bob implies that Arthur's brothers were this to him, and that their absence has made him worse.
  • Moral Myopia: Arthur thinks like this. He loves his brothers and friends dearly, but for him, no one outside this little group is truly human.
    • Fletcher seems to feel the same way, except about race and nationality, rather than Arthur's clannish sense of loyalty. Fletcher is fiercely protective of his white colonists, but utterly cavalier the lives of the Aborigines. In any story about colonialism and cultural conflict, this trope is inevitable.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The Burns Gang, Eden Fletcher.
  • Obliviously Evil: Martha Stanley. She coerces her husband into having an essentially innocent boy flogged to death, but seems more horrified than pleased when she gets what she wanted.
  • Offstage Villainy: Actually done very well here with Arthur. When he first appears he's a charming, cultured man... and then you see what he does to Jellon Lamb...
  • Order Versus Chaos: The events of the film makes it explicit clear that Stanley can't and won't "civilise this land". It took putting chaos versus chaos to take down Arthur and destroyed any order and pretense of civilisation in the process.
  • Promotion to Parent: Arthur is implied to have raised Charlie and Mikey by himself.
  • Police Brutality: While Captain Stanley is a gentleman, his men are not, to put it mildly.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Most of the characters in this movie. Both Jellon Lamb and Sam are heavily racist. Seemingly subverted with Arthur (possibly due to his Faux Affably Evil nature) who has an Aborigine best friend and is not heard speaking ill of any race, despite being a complete psychopath. See Moral Myopia for more on that.
  • Psycho for Hire: Sergeant Lawrence who works under Captain Stanley. He is almost as horribly evil as any of the main villains, and leads a massacre of an aborigine village. Arthur may be worse than him, but when he murders this guy, it's his Moment of Awesome.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The third member of Arthur's gang, Two-Bob, is a hard to hate: he is a resourceful and badass aborigine who just wants his land back, and is notably absent for Arthur and Sam's big Moral Event Horizon.
  • Punctuated Pounding: "HELP! YOUR! FUCKING! SELF!"
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Used in-universe.
    Captain Stanley: You were right to part company with him. What happened at the Hopkins' place was unforgivable. Did you know that poor woman had a child in her belly?
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Captain Stanley. The rest of the police are as thuggish as the outlaws they pursue.
  • Rule of Three: The three Burns brothers.
  • Sadistic Choice: Right there in the premise: choose which of your brothers will live.
  • Saving Christmas: The devastating climax.
  • Scenery Porn: While the towns are in the middle of an otherwise bleak wasteland, some of the hills and other rock formations in the desert look magnificent, especially with the red earth against the backdrop of sunrises and sunsets.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: This is why Fletcher can make his own laws in the outback town.
  • Sean Connery Is About to Shoot You: Danny Huston, Guy Pearce, And Ray Winstone Are About To Shoot You
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Both bounty hunter Jellon Lamb and outlaw Arthur Burns pride themselves in being cultured and well-read, and adopt an educated speech that stands in sharp contrast to the way everyone else in the Outback speaks.
  • Shout-Out: Jellon Lamb's name is likely a reference to the Scottish murder ballad "Jellon Grame", about a man who murders his pregnant girlfriend and takes her child as his own only to be murdered by said child years later, much as Charlie is forced to murder his "father", Arthur. After all, it's not like Nick Cave is ignorant about murder ballads.
  • Shown Their Work: According to the other Wiki: "As noted in behind-the-scenes features included on The Proposition DVD, the film is regarded as uncommonly accurate in depicting indigenous Australian culture of the late 1800s, and when filming in the outback, the cast and crew took great pains to follow the advice of indigenous consultants. In an interview included on the DVD, [Tom E.] Lewis even compares the depiction of indigenous cultures in The Proposition to the landmark film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)." (Interestingly, that film's lead actor, Tom E. Lewis, plays Two-Bob in this movie.)
    • A lot of behind-the-scenes work was done for this film. For example, the director John Hillcoat helped the actors prepare by giving them reading material and other sources for inspiration - Tom Budge (Sam) was given stuff about the My Lai massacre so he could get into the "war criminal" mindset, while David Wenham (Fletcher) was given books about Victorian English manners and etiquette.
  • Signature Style: Nick Cave exercises his love of literary discussion, religious debating, and extreme amounts of violence. He even gets to work in some flowers in Martha's rose garden.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The hauntingly beautiful "Peggy Gordon" sung while the flogged Mikey is shrieking in agony. And again during a rape scene.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: Arthur's last words at the end.
  • Take a Third Option: Turns out not to work.
  • Take Our Word for It: Jacko pointing out smoke on the horizon, which the white troopers can't see even when pointed out to them. We even get a shot of what Jacko sees, and if you look really, really closely, there is a tiny puff of what could be smoke.
  • A Taste of the Lash: More than just a taste. Fletcher sentences the mentally handicapped Mikey to a hundred lashes from the cat o' nine tails. They don't even reach forty lashes before the previously baying audience have all turned away in disgust and Mikey's back is reduced to bleeding ribbons. A blood-splattered Fletcher still wants the full hundred lashes.
  • Title Drop: "I wish to present you with a proposition..."
  • Trojan Prisoner: Two-Bob does this to get the gang into the prison.
  • True Companions: Arthur's band of outlaws.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Or rather, reciting poetry.
  • Warrior Poet: Arthur, Sam, Captain Stanley, and Jellon Lamb. As has been noted, this is a Nick Cave movie.
  • Watching the Sunset: The film's ending between Charlie and his dying brother, Arthur.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Played with in the case of Captain Stanley. He seems like this initially when he pistol whips Mikey, but through the rest of the film, he's shown to be a decent and humane man in comparison to the other policemen (who may be extremist but certainly aren't well-intentioned).
  • The Western: An Australian counterpart.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Queenie (the female member of Arthur's gang) disappears entirely from the movie after a certain point.
    • Two-Bob, the Aboriginal member of the gang isn't present for the finale.
    • It's not clear whether Captain Stanley survived his injuries, though it's implied that he would probably make it.
    • Fletcher doesn't appear after discovering the two prison guards with their heads blown off, but he seems to have gotten off scot-free.
  • "What Now?" Ending: You were expecting anything else from Nick Cave?
  • Wicked Cultured: Jellon Lamb, "man of no little education", and Arthur Burns. In Arthur's case, the trope is used to humanize him, rather than its standard use as just another villainous trapping.
  • Your Head Asplode: The natural consequences of averting Pretty Little Headshots, as seen on one of the Aboriginals who try to kill Charlie. Sam is delighted by this.