Directed by Adrian Lyne, the 1993 film Indecent Proposal stars Robert Redford as John Gage, a billionaire playing a game of greed, seduction, and manipulation with David and Diana Murphy (Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore). The Murphys are high school sweethearts deeply in love. Diana sells real estate, and David is a recently unemployed architect.
David lives by the adage, “life without risk is no life at all.” David is tested by how far he’s willing to take this—and what he’s willing to risk—when things fall apart and the two decide to go to Vegas to test their luck at the smoky craps tables. Billy Bob Thornton makes a brief appearance, telling the Murphys all about the infamous John Gage (Redford) before they actually meet him.
Indecent Proposal’s classic scene places Harrelson, Moore, and Redford around a pool table. Redford, charming and mysterious, makes an offer, at first hypothetical, which will change everything for David and Diana. The words of Jack Engelhard’s novel (he wrote the book) jump from the page to the screen and the viewer is fixated. Redford wants to know: “What would satisfy you completely? What would make you sleep well at night?” He offers one million dollars to sleep with Diana.
There are elements of Indecent Proposal that don’t stand the test of time—the soundtrack, the fashion, and the overstated script, a popular trait in 80’s and early 90’s Hollywood. But the quality of the acting makes the hyperbole easier to stomach. This is, after all, Redford still in his prime with Moore and Harrelson just getting started.
A scene of Harrelson and Moore rolling around in cash on a hotel bed is ridiculous and over the top, but it’s short lived and stereotypical of the early 90s. So terrible, it verges on enjoyable and is easily forgiven.
Indecent Proposal, regardless of being dated, gets at an uncomfortable kernel of truth: a price is paid for a conscious choice to stray from your principles. The choices that the characters are given are choices that we all have to face eventually. Sure, the circumstances will undoubtedly be different, and maybe the stakes might seem a bit unusual, but ultimately each of us have to look in the mirror and decide how far we’re willing to push our values, or lack thereof.
Would we be willing, if life turned a certain way, to make the ultimate moral sacrifice to avoid becoming destitute? What morals or principles are we willing to, quite literally, cash in? How much control do we have? And what role does luck play? Don’t we all make decisions on a daily basis, prioritizing our partner, career, family, and social life? Aren’t we defined by where we place them? They’re fun questions with depth. And while the characters explore the million-dollar question, so do we.
In the end, all three characters have changed. “You can’t buy people not when real emotions are involved,” Diana says before the proposition. Maybe Gage doesn’t buy Diana indefinitely, but he’s able to steal her away from David for a time. Money buys sex; sex creates an emotional blast in all parties; David gets jealous and possessive, which leads to Diana’s continued curiosity in Gage.
Things might be set right, but the world has been utterly changed. As David says: “I thought we were invincible. But now I know that the things that people in love do to each other, they remember. And if they stay together, it’s not because they forget. It’s because they forgive.”
Twenty-five years later, it’s still a film worth revisiting, or seeing for the first time. And it’s definitely worth watching before a trip to Vegas with your significant other.