Year Released: 2006
Directed by: John Hillcoat
Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, Richard Wilson, John Hurt
(R, 104 min.)
"Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." Mark Twain
Clearly not for the squeamish, this “Western” takes place in the Australian outback, where the harsh landscape is as unforgiving as the raw assortment of humans who claim it. But this stark saga transcends genre as it unmasks the complexity of evil, and in so doing, is right up there with Shakespeare, Milton, and Melville.
“What fresh hell is this?” asks Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) as he peers into the stretch of dust and unrelenting sun that threatens to consume the white stuccoed patch of civility he and his lovely wife Martha (Emily Watson) have carved out for themselves.
Stanley, Britain’s man of the law in this lawless land has been compared to Captain Ahab in his obsessive desire to civilize it, even if that means turning brother against brother in order to do so. And that’s exactly what his secret and unconventional proposition is.
In a bloody shootout that opens the film, Stanley has snared two of the miscreant Burns gang, but the third, the real nexus of evil, has eluded him. He promises to spare their lives if only Charley – Guy Pearce in a stunning performance – will find and kill brother Arthur. He has nine days to do it; otherwise brother Mike will die as scheduled on Christmas day—no messy things like trials, lawyers, or years of appeal to slow things down Down Under.
Like all great literature, this film asks more questions than it answers. What, for instance, is civilization? Is it embodied in Mrs. Stanley’s fine china tea service, her flowing gowns or the English roses she cultivates in the god-forsaken land? Yet it is this fine woman who demands Mike Burns be brutally flogged for his alleged role in the rape and killing of her friend.
Is it learned words, esoteric poetry, or soulful philosophy? Then why do the most erudite words flow from Arthur Burns, a defiler of women and children, and a murderer who relishes his craft?
“We are white men, not beasts,” declares John Hurt in his role as a learned bounty hunter with a touch of class, but one who, nevertheless, hunts down men of all colors as if they were beasts.
The one hundred lashes meted out to dim witted Mike Burns – so harsh that even the master of the lash loses his taste for blood after he literally rings it from the drenched leather – are the brain child of the British aristocrat in charge, rounded vowels and fine tailoring covering a heart of darkness.
Yet the gritty guards, with sweat soaked clothes and bad teeth, are brutal without bearing the burden of proper clothes or manners. Nor are the aborigines tucked into the noble savage cliché. Unlike current Hollywood, the Aussies are not quite drowning in white guilt, although there is a disclaimer at the film’s opening about disturbing portraits of native people that may offend some.
Quite frankly, where are the Irish to protest, as the Burns brothers and their cohorts seem to do much more to malign their countrymen’s image, not the least of which is the tuneful rendition of an Irish ballad that Brian O’Leary cheerfully chortles as he defiles another victim.
This minor quibble aside, like the scorching sun that fuses images into an undulating blur, The Proposition alters our preconceived perceptions of good and evil, leaving us shocked, shaken, and awed by its searing reality.
No bloomin’ onions or steak on the barbie for her. Martha Stanley is Victorian right down to the stays she must suffer to fit into all her wasp waisted wardrobe.
In spite of the sweltering heat and dry as dust Christmas day, Martha creates an island of Victorian calm in her sparkling stucco home. And her Christmas fare is worthy of Dickens himself. Fine linen, crystal, and delicate china decorate the table, with roast chicken and all the trimmings waiting to be savored.
Dig in and enjoy. Don’t mind those buzzing flies a bit. But keep a good lookout for the Burns brothers. They are the real flies in the ointment.
Boomerang Chicken and Spuds
This recipe is courtesy of Chef Stefano de Pieri, Stefano’s Restaurant, Mildura Grand Hotel in Victoria, Australia.
5 potatoes, cut into wedges
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
2 cups peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons dried oregano
5 cloves garlic
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup water
1/2 cup dry white wine
Preheat the oven to 180 degree centigrade.
Cut the chicken into pieces of equal size and place in a baking dish. Distribute the potato wedges here and there snugly, wherever they fit.
Pour the oil all over.
Sprinkle cheese and breadcrumbs all over, followed by tomato, oregano, garlic, salt and pepper. Finally pour in the water and wine gently, in one place so that it seeps under the chicken pieces.
Cover with foil and bake for about 35 minutes. Remove the foil to brown all over until cooked.
Recipe Source: Grand Hotel, Victoria, Australia