Sunday, 15 May 2022

Higher noon… The Proposition (2005), BFI Blu-ray/UHD set

You never get your fill of nature… It salves the heart, the mountains, the trees, the endless planes, the moon, the stars… every man can debate quiet, and complete, even the lowliest misanthrope…

Some folk of my generation will tell you when they first saw Nick Cave (1983) and be able to reel off the touchpoints of a career that has not only sustained innovation and vitality but has evolved through music into print and then film. He can write the most beautiful songs about a woman being drowned who is redeemed by her hatred for her murderer, the exploits of serial killers and look his personal tragedies straight on… he is the most honest of artists and this film proved his ability to tackled complex themes as well as provide the most elegant if fierce and frightening, drama.

The Burns boys are ultra-violent criminals and yet, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), head of the family, who will kill a man just as easily as a dog, is in love with the beauty of the Outback landscape and even in the midst of the most violent episode can always find time for the endless majesty of the sunset hance his quote at the top. The film was directed by John Hillcoat who had been inspired after a trip to the region and then begun thinking of the harsh time of the 1880s when it was arguably wilder than the wild west.

Hillcoat got Nick Cave involved on the story and later the score, his first collaboration with violinist and composer Warren Ellis, with the result and unflinching portrayal of humanity in fight or flight and survival mode as the Australian West was won with all the unfairness and amorality that entails. Tom E Lewis, who plays outlaw Two-bob, reflects in the documentary on the fact that even in 2005, aboriginals and white folk didn’t always mix and the film enlists the help of local native Australians to show the impact of the invading white men and the notorious Queensland Native Police.

Danny Huston

Danny Huston sums up the essence in the making of featurette, the characters are not delineated in terms of good and bad, the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good… he sees his Arthur as being very moral, with a very strong sense of family and woe betide the lawman or Englishman who gets in the way. Cave is always able to present the most extreme situations in an almost off-hand way and whilst this encompasses the film’s violence – no Hollywood or Spaghetti Western rolling around – it also enables the presentation of the historical aspects in a way that makes the viewer make their own assessment. As Tom Budge, who plays one of Arthur’s confederates Samuel Stoat, points out, you don’t have to “elevate” the Aboriginals to deal with the issues of their treatment.

It’s about the nature of civilisation… who we are and how wrong we get it…

Then we have the English, with Captain Morris Stanley played by Ray Winstone and his wife Martha, Emily Watson, who makes the above observation and refers to the couple’s small “Chekhovian house”. Their homestead is a representation of the impossible dreams of empire, with their garden a mannered and futile horticultural attempt to recreate the environment of the home country. As Winston says, unlike the USA, a lot of people didn’t choose to go to Australia, they were sent, and this impacted the relationship between law and order with a cultural imposition that simply fails against the harshness of the environment and the people.

Emily Watson and Ray Winstone

This is Stanley’s experience in the film as he fights to maintain his values in the context of and authority and police force far removed from what he is used to: a good man in the wrong position as Cave says in one of the set’s interviews. The proposition Stanley makes is an eternally problematic one, he does a deal with Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), that he and his younger brother Mikey can go free if he brings down his older brother Arthur (Huston), who is wanted for rape and murder of Eliza Hopkins and her unborn child before Christmas in nine days’ time. Needless to say, it’s hardly seasonal weather in the blistering 50-degree heat as Charlie sets off leaving Mikey in perilous incarceration, the guards and local populace keen on revenge without due process.

Australia, what fresh hell is this… make no mistakes Mr Burns I will civilise this place.

Charlie goes to the Hopkins’ home stead and sees the graves and the unused crib, perhaps he realises that his brother has gone too far, Pearce is amazing, as usual, in delivering intensity and complexity with deep interior feeling but he’s far from alone with this cast and this material. There’s an exchange between Stanley and Martha after she comes to see him at the jail, she shocked at the World he lives in, “in there”, believing in him and recognising the burdens of his position without knowing the deal he has done and the reason he has spent three days watching over his – still secret – prisoner.

John Hurt

You want star turns… meet Jellon Lamb, an Englishman “of no little education” played with skills way beyond "world-weary" by John Hurt. Charlie meets him seemingly drunk in a lonesome cantina serving himself as the barman has been impaled by three aboriginal spears. The two spar carefully, Lamb clearly whip smart despite his degradation, a bounty hunter clearly looking for the same man as Charlie.

Back in town, a group of aboriginals have been captured and through interpreter Jacko (the recently deceased David Gulpilil, star of Walkabout), tell of a “Dogman”, a fierce white man who lives in a cave. Charlie, meanwhile, is about to experience one of the film’s most unexpected twists as he wakes to find his horse killed and a spear flying in to puncture his chest, as he falls unconscious he sees an aboriginal’s head shot open… the film’s way with horror is, as I’ve said, casual. Charlie awakes to find himself being tended by his brother’s gang.


Meanwhile, Stanley’s men are talking leaving him exposed to local opprobrium as the fact he let Charlie go is shared across town. Popular opinion must be assuaged and local official, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), orders Mikey to be given one hundred lashes as an initial punishment for the murders. Whilst this might possibly kill the boy, it could also bring the Burns gang back, looking for revenge.

Guy Pearce and Danny Huston

Stanley sends the disloyal Sergeant Lawrence away with tracker Jacko and the other men to investigate the Cantina murder by a group of Aboriginal people on the instructions of Fletcher. Bloodshed ensues… and the Burns gang hear the shots echoing from miles away.

The film’s sense of dread grows heavier as the policemen celebrate their murders and Arthur sits in the moonlight staring intently at the Moon. Events are about to catch up with all the participants in the thunderous final sequence, Hillcoat juxtaposing the disturbing peace of the Stanleys’ household with the savage death count beyond as the Burns gang comes down from their mountain to rescue Mikey…

This is a film to savour and to rewatch and a tip of the hat to cinemtographer Benoît Delhomme who captures the extraordinary light of this desolate and beautiful landscape as well as every pained element of humanity.

It is, of course, an excellent set from the BFI, packed with wonderful extras, contemporary interviews with the cast and crew along with commentaries from Cage and Hillcoat as well as a new one from critics Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson.

Emily Watson

Other features include:

4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentation in Dolby Vision (HDR10 compatible) or Blu-ray only release is presented in High Definition

An 80-page book featuring new writing and recollections by John Hillcoat, Cat Villiers, Leah Purcell and Warren Ellis, plus essays by Andrew Graves, Professor Catriona Elder, Dr Stephen Morgan and Adrian Martin

John Hillcoat and Nick Cave in Conversation (2021, 53 mins, audio only): a newly recorded conversation between the film’s director and its screenwriter

The Making of The Proposition (2005, 27 mins), behind-the-scenes documentary

Inside the Proposition (2005, 43 mins), featurettes looking at the film’s pre-production

Shooting the Proposition (2005, 24 mins), featurettes on the production and the challenges faced during filming 

B-roll footage (2005, 20 mins): behind-the-scenes footage shot during the making of the film

Interviews with Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, John Hurt, Emily Watson, Ray Winston and other cast members


You can order the set direct from the BFI Shop and whether you’ve seen it before or not, prepare to be haunted for days afterwards.


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