The Proposition is a western. But only sort of. Because it’s not literally a western in the sense of being set in the American West of the late 1800s. It is an Australian film, set in the time and place of that country that’s closest to what Americans think of as westerns.
This film by John Hillcoat (director of 2009’s acclaimed The Road) received almost all positive reviews due to its being a deeper, more intellectual, more artistically accomplished product than the norm of the genre. I can see why it would be considered at a higher artistic level like that, but I can’t say it’s a movie I enjoyed a great deal.
I found it to be–from the very beginning when the basic set-up to the storyline is being established–a little obscure for my tastes. Not hugely so by any means; I always had at least a decent idea who was who and what was going on. But just obscure enough to be a little frustrating, to give me that feeling that while I understand the story in very broad terms, I’m missing a lot of the nuance.
A sheriff or some sort of lawman captures two brothers. But it’s a third brother he really wants. Apparently the brothers are estranged from each other, I think–though I picked up on this more later–because the still free brother commits more brutal crimes than the others approve or want to be a part of.
The sheriff-type guy keeps one brother in custody–who seems to be mentally handicapped–and lets the other go, telling him that unless he goes and captures or kills the missing brother within a certain time period, the simple-minded one will hang.
So the story, the suspense, is mostly about what the freed brother will do. Will he disappear and save himself and let the captive brother hang? Will he find and kill the criminal brother he’s estranged from? Will he join up with that brother and come back to try to rescue the captive one?
One thing that I appreciated about the film is that it’s complex and realistic enough not to have clear good guys and bad guys. The lawman who seems like a definite villain or diabolical local warlord when he sends the guy off to kill his own brother, turns out to be a largely sympathetic figure trying to choose as best he can amongst available evils. Characters who seem like bad guys intervene to save other characters’ lives–while arguably remaining bad guys. People who seem loyal to one side turn on that side. People who seem ineffectual turn out to be dangerous.
It’s actually pretty well done and unpredictable. But again, what keeps me from rating the film higher is that there are lots of details necessary to really understand things at a deeper level that are missing or presented confusingly.
The occasional violent flare-ups are attention-grabbing–lots of blood–but otherwise a fair amount of the movie is slow-paced. Again, more of a thoughtful, artsy version of a western, than a heavy action, conventional western thriller.
The scenery effectively communicates a desolate “middle of nowhere” feeling. For that matter, the extras–the townspeople–are more like scenery than people, and add to that creepy, isolated feeling. They just drift along watching things suspiciously, or getting a sadistic look on their face when witnessing violence and cruelty. They are nearly always silent. They’re more like parts of a potential impersonal mob, than like flesh and blood individuals capable of sympathy and positive emotions.
Clearly there are things to like about this movie. It was dense enough often enough to frustrate me, but I’d say it’s still worth a mild recommendation.