The Proposition

A gang of outlaws is trapped by the authorities and overwhelmed in a tin shack somewhere in the Australian outback in (I’m guessing) the late 1800s. The gang of outlaws is led by the trim, scruffy Guy Pearce. The sheriff is the not-trim-but-almost-as-scruffy Ray Winstone. Both actors draw vivid, exciting portraits of their characters, men on opposite sides of the law in a savage land suffering the birth-pangs of civilization.

The sheriff gives the outlaw the proposition of the title: I will let you go if you will hunt down your brother and kill him before Christmas. This brother is, apparently, living out in the wasteland, some kind of psychopathic monster, feared by whites and aborigines alike. The sheriff takes the outlaw’s mentally-retarded little brother custody as surety.

This is a terrific setup for a western, with two wonderful actors given parts to sink their considerable teeth into. We can’t wait to see the fireworks between these two characters, the outlaw with a conscience and the sheriff who will commit savage acts in order to civilize a wilderness.

So it’s a little strange when, ten minutes into the movie, the narrative sends the outlaw off in one direction and the sheriff off in another, and doesn’t bring them back together until the very end. What follows is two parallel narrative tracks, with neither track carrying much burden in terms of plot.

The outlaw wanders in the desert, meets a drunken racist and is attacked by aborigines. The sheriff goes home, hangs out with his wife, deals with his subordinates, supervises the simple brother, suffers attacks from his superior, and begins to regret his decision to let the outlaw go. The outlaw meets up with his brother, thinks about killing him, then doesn’t, then decides they should all go get the simple brother out of prison.

The movie is never boring. The scenes are staged with great skill, ingenuity and attention to detail. The photography, acting and production design are skillful and evocative of a blunt, brutal time (the flies covering everything are a particularly vivid detail), but I can’t help think there was a narrative opportunity passed up somewhere. The sheriff’s proposition makes no sense — let a notorious outlaw go to go fetch his more notorious brother, and we’ll keep your simple brother as collateral? That’s his plan? He has been looking for this outlaw gang for a long time and has spent considerable resources on their capture, and the first thing he does is let the leader go? What makes him think he’ll return?

(He says that the outlaw would do anything to save his little brother, but it’s weak — we have only the sheriff’s word on the filial affection, and what, indeed would stop him from coming back with a plan to bust the brother out of prison and kill everybody, which is, indeed, what ends up happening?)

For a while it seems that the outlaw’s journey through the wasteland is going to be an odyssey through the layers of civilization, or perhaps an interior journey into madness and betrayal, but it seems to take no time for the outlaw to meet up with his brother, and even then he gets let off the narrative hook by a spear through the chest, a smashing image that turns the character into a passive protagonist for an entire act.

Why separate the protagonist and antagonist for the entire movie? Where are the stakes? The simple brother is bedeviled in the prison, but the outlaw doesn’t know that, and the “bad brother” doesn’t know anything about the simple brother’s predicament until the end of the second act. There is much brutality and ugliness on display in this angry indictment of nation-building, but little in the way of suspense or narrative drive.

Imagine if in Jaws, the sheriff caught the shark, then let it go, then told everyone that he’d caught it, and then we cut back and forth from the shark swimming around to the sheriff gradually coming to accept that he’d better go kill that shark after all and you have a sense of the powerful, yet curiously static, effect of The Proposition.


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Comments

5 Responses to “The Proposition”
  1. ninebelow says:

    I found it a rather unsatisfactory film as well. Related to this ongoing project: have you seen The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada? A wonderful contemporary Western heavily informed by modern US independant cinema.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t seen that one, although I was very impressed by Mr. Jones’s performance in the current In the Valley of Elah and I’ve heard many good things about it. Perhaps I will check it out.

  2. mikeyed says:

    It’s a rather depressing movie, yes, but I felt the ending had enough punch to suffice the lack of exchange between protagonist and antagonist. Letting the brother go in the first place was a rather a bad idea, but I think it was well justified in some ways. I felt Winstone’s character understood the risks, yet had that moment of ridiculous compassion within a harsh environment. Yeah, it’s stupid, but the movie is so well done that I’m willing to chalk it up as one those stupid 3am ideas people have then end up regretting.

  3. toliverchap says:

    I did a review of The Proposition for a podcast I do and I also had some problems with it. I guess I didn’t like the somewhat two dimensional bad guys such as the psychopath brother (it felt like old stereotypes to me as did many of the characters). For my money the most interesting character was the John Hurt bounty hunter whom we were given a great introduction to only to have him really do nothing in movie.