The Proposition, written by songwriter, Nick Cave, uses the conventions of the Western genre to wrestle with ideas of good and evil (a recurrent theme in the revisionist Western) but more interestingly, uses the form to also indict the colonialist mission in Australia. The story is set in motion when a lawman bent on capturing three outlaw brothers makes a deal with the middle of the three - bring back the oldest one or the youngest, who he has in custody, will hang. The lawman, played by Ray Winstone, echoes the film's tagline, when he proclaims emphatically "this land will be civilized." Yet the remainder of the film makes it abundantly clear that what the European settlers have brought to the country is a far cry from civilization.
The contrast between the worlds of the colonialists and the colonized is beautifully evoked in a scene where Ray Winstone's character tells his Aboriginal servant to be on his way as he settles on his porch, rifle in hand, waiting for the inevitably brutal attack from the outlaws that will follow. He wishes the Aboriginal man, "Merry Christmas," at which point the latter removes his shoes and socks at the gate of the yard, returns the good wishes with a hint of irony in his voice and walks away barefoot. The camera lingers on the shoes briefly, letting us know that we are meant to see something beyond the surface in this moment. One interpretation is that the shoes are a connection to "civilization" but in this case, a civilization that doesn't fit into the world it has been introduced to. Later another Aboriginal man, who is serving as a tracker for a group of lawmen, calls attention to the barbarism of the Europeans when he comments to one of the lawmen, "strange mob, you whities," as they observe the remaining members of the troop standing around a tree, trying to urinate on each other. Like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, which also uses the Western genre to critique the treatment of indigenous people, The Proposition gives a voice to the oppressed and does it in a way that's not merely politically correct.
The Proposition is an incredibly violent yet somehow subtle film. Themes are suggested but (excuse the pun) nothing is black and white. Over 100 minutes the moral struggles of its complex characters are explored and time feels like it has passed too quickly. The film's violence feels essential to the narrative for lending verisimilitude but also for adding urgency to the stakes involved for its characters. Not a scene is wasted. The images are lyrical, the visual style, brisk and the cinematography, breathtaking. The casting and performances are all perfect, with Danny Huston and John Hurt being particularly outstanding.
This is a brilliant film that's been unjustly ignored, but not surprisingly so, considering its underlying critical stance. Rent, buy or borrow it, but make sure you see it.
The DVD extras (interviews with the cast, director and screenwriter) are also excellent, providing valuable insight into the background and themes of the film.