Guy Pearce’s favourite scene in The Proposition, in which he stars, is when Emily Watson’s Martha realizes the deal her husband has made with the devil in order to, in his words, “civilize” the land. “I cry every time I see it,” he says. “One of the things I think the film is about is the repercussions of violence and violent acts and the point is really made with Emily’s character.”
Pearce is on the phone from Australia, talking about the film where he plays Charlie Burns, an outlaw on the Australian outback dealt the proposition of the title by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone): Charlie has to kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) in order to spare his unwitting younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) from the noose. All three have been involved, according to the captain, in the brutal rape of a young woman and the massacre of her family, but he believes it was the psychotic oldest brother who instigated it.
In the scene Pearce speaks of, horror creeps across Watson’s face as the dangers of siding with a seemingly no-good bush-ranger become clear to her. She is helpless to protect herself against the ramifications of her husband’s deal. The film is violent but not gratuitously so, says Pearce. “You see these horrible acts, then the next few scenes are people reeling from them.”
With its harsh desert setting and gritty storytelling, the film has quickly been labelled a western. It seems to fit that genre better than “period costume drama”—though it is that, technically speaking—but Pearce is reluctant to peg it as a western.
“The term is so American,” he says. “We don’t really have that genre here, although there are bushranger and Ned Kelly movies. I think that when the film was being made it was easier to use that label to get the idea across.”
Set in the outback during the 19th century, the characters are all settlers trying to survive in extreme conditions of lawlessness and weather. Film conditions were extreme enough for the cast and crew, with temperatures soaring to the high 40s and dipping to around 15 degrees Celsius at night. “It was kind of tough but at the same time it was so important to know what life was like,” says Pearce of the time period.
“There was a lot of stuff John got for us; a lot of real accounts of the outback. What it taught me was what it would have been like to live with violence.” Was his character Charlie a criminal before he came to Australia or did the outback make him so? Pearce refers to the common backstory he, Huston and Wilson created for their characters. They decided that the Burns boys were raised by Irish convict-immigrants and therefore grew up in a culture of crime: “And that is a real tragedy —when you don’t know any better. Though you get the sense that Charlie wants different for Mikey.”
The screenplay for The Proposition was written by Nick Cave, more famous for his music, though he does have a history in film.
“He’s a bit of an icon in Australia,” Pearce says. “He’s a delight, though he probably wouldn’t like being described as that.” He laughs. “He’s gruff but he’s got a real soft centre.”
It’s not really surprising to hear such a description of Cave, as the film itself is punctuated with as many quiet moments as shocking ones. Pearce’s other favourite scene is the pivotal first encounter of Charlie and Arthur, which is also the audience’s introduction to Arthur. It is set on a ledge overlooking an expanse of desert, under a sunset that the big screen will do justice to. “We’ve heard the legend of Arthur,” says Pearce, “and here he is sitting on a ledge. And he is so charming.”
It is an omen for audiences that The Proposition’s villain can be rendered almost human by such scenery. Maybe they will find themselves moved by such an unforgiving but sweeping film.
The Proposition opens Friday at Bayers Lake.