John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” (2005)
A gritty and visually stunning film essay on the combined effect of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Victorian mores, colonialism and a harsh, unforgiving environment on the individuals residing within, “The Proposition” is singer / writer Nick Cave’s meditation on the Western movie genre in an Australian colonial context.
Police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), recently assigned from England to take charge of a lonely desert town somewhere in the Queensland colony, has just captured two brothers of a rebellious Irish family the Burns after a crazed shoot-out that leaves nearly everyone either dead or deranged. Knowing that both brothers have an older brother on the lam wanted for heinous crimes of rape and murder, and desiring to civilise his little patch of Australian territory with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), Stanley presents one brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) with a stark choice: go after big brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him within 9 days before Christmas Day or the police will hang baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), a bit of a simpleton, on that day. Charlie accepts the proposition and goes out to apprehend Arthur but not before he nearly loses his life and is saved by Arthur and his gang: an unexpected twist that severely tests Charlie’s loyalty to both his brothers, his moral principles and his desire and determination to lead a life free from the history of past British-versus-Irish conflict and violence and how this has brutalised his family through the generations.
While Charlie hunts Arthur, Stanley has problems of his own to contend with: he tries to use reason to get rid of a greater evil (Arthur) and give Charlie and Mikey a chance of redeeming themselves but opposition from his own police troopers, police superintendent Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his own wife Martha (Emily Watson) – who demands justice for her dead friends killed by the Burns brothers – and the townspeople force him to flog Mikey. Interestingly the flogging turns the townspeople against Stanley, causes Watson to faint and encourages insubordination among Stanley’s troopers.
In the meantime police sergeant Lawrence and his men, sent out by Stanley to find some Aborigines who have killed a white man, slaughter a group of natives and in turn are killed by Arthur and his side-kick Samuel, but not before Lawrence tells Arthur of Stanley’s proposition to Charlie. The Burns gang later breaks Mikey out of jail but, weakened by the flogging, the boy dies and Arthur swears vengeance on the Stanleys.
The actual plot with its proposition centre-piece and the unforeseen karmic consequences that result is an interesting intellectual exercise on paper and for those who understand Nick Cave’s inner universe; for the general public, it’s perhaps a little abstract and doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s a conventional climax of violence but the true climax is quiet and shattering as Charlie and Arthur share one last moment of family togetherness – in the sense that members of a family mafia can experience it – before Charlie faces existential emptiness in a vast and bleak though beautiful landscape that reflects his pain and his past bad luck, born of history, back at him. The movie is best appreciated as a character study bringing together the British imperial project and its presumptuous attitude to tame and subjugate a land and its people, the effect of that project on its subject peoples, and the effect of isolation and coping with a harsh desert environment on that project and the people as well.
What makes the character study effective is both the acting and the ambiguity of the characters themselves and what they represent: Hillcoat assembled an international cast of fine actors, some of whom inevitably are under-utilised. Pearce and Winstone are the stand-outs as protagonist and antagonist who agree to a Faustian deal that will tear them apart physically and psychologically. Pearce plays his character straight and only hints at the internal anguish Charlie is suffering: perhaps he was not the best actor to play this role and Wenham, playing a minor character, might have done a better job. Winstone is the much better actor in his role: representing Enlightenment reason in a limited and flawed way, believing perhaps that people are not born bad but can be encouraged to rise from badness to goodness, he attempts to give Charlie and Mikey a chance in a way that he hopes will advance his career as well as redeem the two; but local prejudice and resentment against him and his wife as naive English snobs, his own self-serving ambitions as a leader and his wife’s own inability to come to terms with her nature and upbringing conspire against him. I probably make Stanley sound too good: he is tender to Martha and tries to protect her but one has to ask why he brought Martha out to Australia in the first place.
John Hurt as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb intent on killing the Burns brothers has a very small role but fills it to the full with deranged malice; Emily Watson plays Martha Stanley intelligently and with substance: the character though represents an aspect of English civility trying to bring order and refinement to an alien environment but doomed to fail because it doesn’t understand its own roots of violence and repression, let alone the unforgiving demands of a new country and the skills required to survive there; so in effect Watson’s effort amounts to very little. The Aboriginal characters are portrayed with some sympathy given that the script is focussed on the white characters; it is interesting that the Burns brothers, murderous renegades thought they are, treat their Aboriginal friend humanely and even use white people’s distrust of black people to their advantage to break Mikey out of jail. The most interesting character is Arthur, a poet and philosopher as well as murderous psychopath, thanks to Huston’s steady and under-played performance: one sees that in another land, another century, Arthur could have been an intelligent, sensitive and capable leader of men. In a brutal country which understands only the language of invasion, violence, subjugation and discrimination based on class, ethnicity and race, Arthur becomes the freest of all men, obeying 0nly his own morality and musing on his place within the Australian landscape and the universe, and in that he is the most dangerous.
The Australian landscape is a significant character in the film and gives it a distinctive ambience and flavour: it is a harsh and unyielding landscape yet a beautiful one that invites people like Arthur to contemplate its mystery and beauty and their relationship to its treasures. In a way perhaps the true protagonist and antagonist in this film are – ahem, Nick Cave couldn’t resist a little joke here! – Arthur and Martha: one understands true beauty, the other is in thrall to an artificial beauty and refinement. They might have made a nice couple but they carry too much cultural baggage and their meeting in the film is very, very brief.