Since Guy Pearce first emerged as a major talent in L.A. Confidential – a film thoroughly stolen from the higher profile talent involved by the then largely unknown duo of Pearce and Russell Crowe – Hollywood has been struggling to cast him as a typical leading man. They have failed and will continue to do so. Here's why: when your typical Hollywood leading man, Brad Pitt for example, gets dirtied up for a role they perversely get prettier. When Pearce dirties up he revels in the filth. And this isn't about the makeup job or lighting, there is something behind Pearce's eyes, something truly unsettling and coldly amoral. It is that quality that will prevent Pearce from ever cracking the Hollywood a-list but it is also that quality that, properly harnessed, has driven his best work in LA Confidential, Ravenous, Memento and now The Proposition.
The Proposition, a second collaboration between director John Hillcoat and musician Nick Cave, is a sort of Australian western, a film set in the outback during the late 1800's British settlement days. Pearce stars as Charlie Burns, one of three brothers that make up the infamous Burns gang. In the film's opening scene Charlie and younger brother Mikey are captured after a vicious shoot out with regional law man Captain Winstone. But as big a prize as Charlie and Mikey are, Winstone is after bigger fish – eldest brother Arthur – and is prepared to do just about anything to get him. Thus Winstone lays out the titular proposition, a deal he is prepared to cut Charlie. It is nine days until Christmas. Winstone will take Mikey into custody and he will be executed on Christmas day unless Charlie can hunt down and kill his older brother Arthur before then. Charlie must choose: the life of his younger brother or the life of his older.
The Proposition is a bleak, barren film, one perfectly matched to the harshness of its desert setting. Everyone has an angle, nobody is to be trusted, and weakness means certain death. With the film's strength of focus, cold hearted violence and undertones of racial violence The Proposition makes Deadwood look positively limp and flaccid by comparison. Hillcoat aquits himself admirably behind the camera filling the screen with breathtaking images and giving the film a lyrical pace that only serves to drive the inevitable violence home with that much more force when it does arrive. Cave's script is simple and spare – these are people who prefer action to speech – and his musical score, while recognizably Cave, is suitably atmospheric and serves the film well. The entire cast is solid – Pearce is joined by Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, John Hurt and Emily Watson – with not a weak performance or character to be found.
More a violent art film than a typical western The Proposition may struggle some to find an audience but Hillcoat may have here crafted a six guns and horses answer to Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks. Highly recommended.