Set in the Australian outback in the 1880s, the movie follows a series of events following the horrific rape and murder of the Hopkins family, likely committed by the infamous Burns brothers gang.
The film opens in a remote wood building with a violent gunfight between the police and Charlie Burns' (Guy Pearce) gang, which ends with the deaths of all of the gang members except for Charlie and his younger brother Mikey. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) makes a proposition to Charlie: he and the feeble-minded Mikey can go free of the crimes they have committed if Charlie kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). Arthur is a mercurial psychopath who is so vicious the Aboriginal tribes refer to him as "The Dog Man" and both the police and the Aborigines refuse to go near his camp. Captain Stanley states his intention to civilize the harsh Australian wilderness by bringing Arthur to justice and using Mikey as leverage. Charlie has nine days to find and kill Arthur, or else Mikey will be hanged from the gallows on Christmas Day.
Captain Stanley's motivations for taming Australia are revealed: he has been forced to move there with his delicate wife, Martha Stanley (Emily Watson), and apparently wants to make it a safer place for them to live. The Stanleys were friends of the Hopkins family, leading Martha to have nightmares about her dead friends. Word spreads of Stanley's deal with Charlie, primarily from Stanley's corrupt subordinate, Sergeant Lawrence (Robert Morgan), causing disgust among the townspeople.
Shortly thereafter, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), for whom Captain Stanley works, orders that Mikey be given one hundred lashes as punishment for the rape and murder of the Hopkins family. Stanley is aghast at this, not only because he believes Mikey is likely innocent and the flogging may kill him or harm him irreparably, but also because it will break his deal with Charlie and bring the Burns gang's revenge upon him and his wife. Stanley sends Sergeant Lawrence away with tracker Jacko (David Gulpillil) and other men to "investigate" the reported slaying of Dan O'Riley by a group of Aborigines.
Meanwhile, Charlie rides in search of Arthur, drinking and apparently reflecting. Along the way, he encounters an inebriated old man named Jellon Lamb (John Hurt). In the course of conversation, Charlie realizes that Lamb is a bounty hunter in pursuit of the Burns brothers and knocks him out. Later on, after sleeping on a rock bed, Charlie awakes and is speared in the chest by a group of Aboriginal men standing over him. Seconds later a gunshot is heard and the head of the man who threw the spear explodes. Charlie then passes out.
Charlie wakes up in the camp of his brother Arthur, located in caves among desolate mountains. Arthur's gang consists of Samuel Stoat (Tom Budge), who shot the Aboriginal man who had speared Charlie; a woman named Queenie (Leah Purcell) who tends to Charlie's wound; and a muscular Aboriginal man called Two-Bob (Tom E. Lewis). As he recovers from his wounds, Charlie has several opportunities to kill his brother, but does not.
Captain Stanley attempts to defend Mikey by gunpoint from the bloodthirsty townspeople, but is overruled once Martha arrives, insisting on revenge for her dead friends. Mikey is brutally flogged and horrifically wounded. The formerly excited townspeople slowly become disgusted and Martha faints at the ghastly display. Captain Stanley grabs the whip and throws it at Fletcher, staining him with blood. Fletcher fires Stanley.
Near Arthur's camp, Sergeant Lawrence and his men have found and butchered a group of Aborigines. Arthur and Two-Bob find Lawrence's group while they sleep and kill Jacko and Sergeant Lawrence. Before Arthur stomps Lawrence to death, Lawrence tells Arthur that Charlie has been sent to kill him. Jellon Lamb enters Arthur's camp and ties up Samuel and Charlie, both of whom are sleeping. Lamb is shot from behind by the returning Two-Bob. Arthur then begins torturing the still-living Lamb with a knife. Charlie points his revolver at Arthur, but instead shoots Jellon in the head, putting him out of his misery.
Charlie decides he wants to break out Mikey and informs Arthur. Arthur, Samuel and Charlie ride into town dressed in the clothes taken from the officers Arthur and Two-Bob had killed, while Two-Bob poses as an Aborigine they have captured. Once at the jail, the men free Mikey, and Charlie and Two-Bob ride off with him. Arthur and Samuel remain to torture and slaughter the two officers inside the jail. The badly injured Mikey, who has never recovered from the flogging, dies in Charlie's arms. As they bury Mikey, Two-Bob tells Charlie that all of this is Charlie's fault: "You should never have left us."
Captain Stanley and Martha let their guard down to have a peaceful Christmas dinner. Immediately following their conclusion of grace, Arthur and Samuel shoot open the door and invade their home. Arthur pulls Captain Stanley into the other room and brutally beats him, while Samuel taunts his wife. Samuel drags Martha inside, and Arthur shoots Captain Stanley through the shoulder. As Samuel assaults Martha, Charlie walks in and informs Arthur of Mikey's death; Arthur ignores the news and encourages Charlie to listen to Samuel's beautiful singing. Charlie walks up to Samuel and shoots him point blank in the head, then shoots Arthur twice, saying afterward, "No more." Arthur staggers out of the house. Charlie tells Captain Stanley "I want to be with my brother." He leaves the house and follows a trail of blood to find Arthur seated on the ground nearby and sits down next to him. Arthur states that Charlie has finally stopped him and asks what he will do now, to no answer, and dies as his brother watches the blood red sunset of the outback.Guy Pearce as Charlie Burns
Ray Winstone as Captain Morris Stanley
Emily Watson as Martha Stanley
Danny Huston as Arthur Burns
David Wenham as Eden Fletcher
Richard Wilson as Mike Burns
John Hurt as Jellon Lamb
Tom E. Lewis as Two Bob
Leah Purcell as Queenie
Tom Budge as Samuel Stoat
David Gulpillil as Jacko
Noah Taylor as Brian O'Leary
Mick Roughan as Mad Jack Bradshaw
Shane Watt as John Gordon
Rodney Boschman as Tobey
The film's soundtrack, titled The Proposition, was released shortly after the film in October 2005. The music was composed and performed by Nick Cave and violinist Warren Ellis.
All tracks are directly reproduced from the musical interludes in the film, and feature little alteration from the film score. Many songs on the album are slow-tempo and ballad-like, and the violin work of Warren Ellis becomes the central voice of the album for much of the time. The album is instrumentally focused, and is a departure from Cave's band-oriented compositions. Cave's unusual vocal performances on the "Rider" trilogy of songs brings a particularly haunting and uneasy tone to the album.
The Proposition received a Limited release in North America opening in 3 theatres and grossed $32,681, with an average of $10,893 per theatre and ranking #46 at the box office. The widest release in the United States for the film was 200 theatres and it ended up earning $1,903,434. The film also grossed $3,145,259 internationally including $1,567,266 in Australia and $1,157,037 in the United Kingdom for a total of $5,048,693.
The Proposition received highly positive reviews from professional film critics and has a "Certified Fresh" score of 87% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 123 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3 out of 10. The critical consensus states: "Brutal, unflinching, and violent, but thought-provoking and with excellent performances, this Australian western is the one of the best examples of the genre to come along in recent times." The film also has a score of 73 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 31 critics indicating "Generally favorable reviews".
At the Movies critic Margaret Pomeranz called it an "extraordinary film [that] explores the elliptical nature of class, race, colonisation and family. … All the performances are strong but once again Guy Pearce brings a strange power to Charlie and Ray Winstone is truly fine as Stanley. And Danny Huston is oddly perfect as Arthur. It’s a strange, unsettling film, ultimately quite moving, it’s impossible not to respond to it strongly. It’s not an easy access film. It’s violent and the motivation of the characters is sometimes oblique."
Co-host David Stratton thought that The Proposition was "a fascinating depiction of the outback in this period, and I've never seen an Australian film which told what is basically a bushranging story in such an unusual way. So, it has a lot of originality there. And it has fine performances. I thought Danny Huston was extraordinary, actually. He's an actor I usually don't respond to, but I thought he was excellent in this role. So, there's a lot of intriguing elements to this film, but I did find the violence almost unwatchable."
Roger Ebert, giving it 4 out of a possible 4 stars, described the film as "A movie you cannot turn away from; it is so pitiless and uncompromising, so filled with pathos and disregarded innocence, that it is a record of those things we pray to be delivered from." AM New York, The Austin Chronicle and Entertainment Insider also gave the film 4/4 stars.
Ty Burr of The Boston Globe acclaimed the film as "a near-masterpiece of mood and menace, and one that deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible".
J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader said: "This Aussie feature perfectly re-creates the charbroiled landscapes and cruel psychodrama of the old Sergio Leone westerns, with John Hurt particularly fine as a raging old mountain goat." Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly opined the film as "a pitiless yet elegiac Australian Western as caked with beauty as it is with blood."
Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal labelled the film "a visionary tale of a fragile civilizing impulse crushed by family loyalty and a lust for revenge in the vast Outback of the late 19th century."
Nick Rogers of Suite101.com remarked: "John Hillcoat's violence-probing Western feels as uncompromisingly bleak, royally widescreen and graphically violent as any Sam Peckinpah opus - a sunburned, grimy-nailed saga of point-blank executions and blood wrung from a cat o' nine tails."
Chris Barsanti of the Film Journal International called it "the finest, strangest and most uncompromising western to hit screens since Unforgiven."
Two acclaimed Indigenous Australian actors (David Gulpilil and Tom E. Lewis) have supporting roles in the film.
As noted in behind-the-scenes features included on The Proposition DVD, the film is regarded as uncommonly accurate in depicting indigenous Australian culture of the late 19th century, and when filming in the outback, the cast and crew took great pains to follow the advice of indigenous consultants. In an interview included on the DVD, Lewis even compares the depiction of indigenous cultures in The Proposition to the landmark film The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), which Lewis starred in.
The DVD was released in the United States by First Look Pictures on 19 September 2006.
Tartan Video's Region 2 DVD release in the UK was a two-disc release and contains these additional features: audio commentary by Nick Cave and John Hillcoat on disc 1, exclusive interviews with Guy Pearce and Danny Huston (25 minutes), a "meet the cast and crew" feature (35 minutes), a "making of" feature (118 minutes) and a theatrical trailer on disc 2.
The film was released on Blu-ray on 19 August 2008.