Film The Proposition
By Brett McCracken
June 4, 2006
It is a rare film that is more defined by its screenwriter than its director (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one such), but when a creative force so singular and distinctive as Nick Cave is at the helm of a script, one must consider the piece through that lens. Nick Cave, the misanthropic, post-punk, Aussie musician of 80s and 90s hipster notoriety, has written (and scored) an Australian period western that accurately reflects his ongoing artistic preoccupations: death, love, violence, myth and the place of God in a pagan world.
The Proposition begins with an opening credits sequence that bespeaks the “taming the wilderness” theme that will drive the mood of the picture. During the opening credits we see an archival-photo slideshow of British pioneers and native Aborigines during the early years of Australia’s nationhood, to the tune of a young girl singing “There is a Happy Land.” This sequence ends with a series of pictures of a grisly and notorious massacre known as “The Hopkins Outrage,” which is the unseen action that ignites the fire of the film.
Apparently three members of the Hopkins family, including a pregnant mother, were raped and slain by the despicable Burns brothers, a family gang of outlaws as or more vicious than any you might find in a John Ford or Sam Peckinpah western. Two of the Burns brothers—young Mike (Richard Wilson) and brooding Charlie (Guy Pearce)—are subsequently captured by the town’s chief of police, Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone). In an effort to apprehend the third—and most dangerous—brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), a proposition is made. The secret deal proposed is that Charlie be set free on the promise that he locate and kill brother Arthur before the fast-approaching Christmas holiday. Meanwhile, Mike will remain in custody in the town jail with the promise of execution by hanging if Charlie doesn’t return by Christmas having killed brother Arthur. Of course, this setup presents quite the “trade one brother to save another” moral quandary for Charlie, but it’s not the only conflict in the film.
The above situation more or less drives the plot of the film, with all the western genre conventions in glorious display: bloody justice, frontier lawlessness, family loyalty and brutal violence (more on this later). But the most intriguing aspect of The Proposition is probably its setting in the barren wilds of the newly-pioneered Australian outback. The “land” is often a character unto itself in westerns, but in this film it is especially so. The outback of The Proposition is a barren, dusty, fly-infested hell. We see blood-red sunsets, dark clouds, lightning storms, vistas of soul-crushing enormity, all to the devilish dirges of Cave’s dark score. Every character seems earth-crusted, with decaying teeth or sun-scorched skin, constantly enshrouded in flies or insects whose malevolent presence is accentuated by the musical accompaniment of buzzing drones, guitar feedback and screechy violins.
In this way, the mood of the film emerges as its strongest trait. The film’s haunting, mystical atmosphere reminded me of the early films of Australian director Peter Weir, specifically The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock. Those films captured something unique and unsettling about the “pagan spirit” of Australia. Was this vast land ever meant to be colonized, Christianized, tamed? That is surely a central question in many westerns—Australian or otherwise.
The conflict between civilization and savagery in The Proposition is most eloquently portrayed in the character of Martha, the well-kept British wife of police chief Stanley. Martha (a stunning Emily Watson) is white and fragile as English porcelain, but industrious and resolute in her aims to tame her wild environs. Her house—complete with a white picket fence and wannabe pruned garden—stands out like an unwelcome imperialist foreigner in a strange, unforgiving land (essentially what it is). It is a wonderfully symbolic moment when, on Christmas day, Martha unpacks a Christmas tree (imported from parts unknown), decorates it and sets a pristine holiday table. Of course, what happens after the Christmas blessing is prayed is a testament to the savage darkness that lurks just beyond the doors.
And that savagery is disarmingly, unapologetically portrayed in The Proposition. Whether by flogging, stomping, spearing, slicing or shooting, death and violence are ever-present in this film. The squeamish should see this movie at their own risk, though the violence is certainly essential to the story and themes being portrayed. The Burns brothers epitomize the Joseph Conrad-esque amorality that comes with the civilzed man entering, unprotected, such a dangerous and godless “heart of darkness” as the Aboriginal outback. Guy Pearce does a great job of playing a character plagued by the loss of God and traditional morality but haunted by the vestiges of both. You can see in his gaunt, scar-ridden countenance a sort of wearied torment at the state of his life, family and soul. But Danny Huston (an incredible, underrated actor of which you’re likely to recognize but not know from where) is even better. His Arthur Burns is a poetry-spewing arch-villain whose eyes are as conscienceless as a crocodile. Both Pearce and Huston play their characters with understated excellence, aided by a director (music video veteran John Hillcoat) who understands the unnerving power of silence and an unanswerable evil.
The ultimate appeal or value of a film like this—apart from being essential viewing for any fan of Nick Cave’s quirky artistic vision—is that it evokes place so keenly in terms of the physical, cultural and spiritual essence of Australia in the 1880s. That was a time when—worldwide—open unbelief in God was riding the coattail of Darwin’s march toward science-proved secularism. It was a place founded as an “exile island” for Britain’s scorned and unwanted, where idealism, religion and morality often became deadwood in the parched desert landscape. This was a place of transition, uncertainty, ambiguity—where even the best-intentioned and most rational “proposition” had but little chance of solving anything.