“There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things.A man who sits dying wheezes these words about halfway through The Proposition. His killer moves in close and finishes the poem: “’Life is very sweet, brother; Who would wish to die?’” There is a smile of recognition between the two men. The killer continues, “George Borrow, I believe. A worthy writer, and a beautiful sentiment, sir.” He shoves him over. “But you’re not my brother.”
Sun, and moon and stars, brother; all sweet things.
There’s likewise a wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother.”
Sun, and moon and stars, brother; all sweet things.
There’s likewise a wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother.”
The Proposition is the finest film Western made in my lifetime. That is not an easy distinction for me to grant, since Clint Eastwood may be my favorite living actor and Unforgiven was undoubtedly one of the greatest films (of any genre) of the entire 1990s. But while Unforgiven was superb and the best-ever filmed rumination on the Western genre itself, The Proposition is a singular work of art that is so thematically rich that it would take a long time to fully explore its depths. I'll just give a brief summary in this review.
While the thematic elements of the film are nuanced and wonderfully layered, the plot is rhythmic and simple. The basic premise is outlined within the first five minutes. It is set in the wilderness of 19th Century Australia. Charles and Mikey Burns, two Irish brothers of the murderous Burns Gang, are captured by police in a brothel following a bloody standoff. Police Captain Stanley (who is after the third brother, the sadistic gang leader Arthur) offers Charlie the following deal: venture into the outback and kill Arthur, and he will pardon both Charlie and Mikey. "You want me to kill me brother," says Charlie, expressionless. "I want you to kill your brother," agrees Stanley.
Mikey is taken prisoner and Charlie is given a gun and a horse and is released. And here you have the film. Charlie, played in a superlatively understated performance by Guy Pearce, must choose between his brothers. It is strongly implied that Mikey is mentally handicapped, and Charlie had escaped the gang with him only recently. It is obvious to Charlie, and to the audience, that it would be better for everybody if he simply went through with the plan and killed Arthur. However, they are brothers and such a thing is not so easily done. It is this conflict between the reasoned and the idealistic, between the utilitarian and the Kantian, that forms the basic underlying conflict running through the entire film.
Meanwhile, the small frontier town that Captain Stanley polices is similarly on edge. Word gets around that Stanley had Charlie released, and a public bloodthirsty for revenge against the Burns Gang (responsible for a series of horrific murders, rapes, and home invasions), begins to grumble darkly for Mikey's execution and against Captain Stanley himself. Stanley does his best to hold back this vicious tide of public opinion, but he is thwarted in his efforts by Fletcher, his boss, and Martha, his wife, who was friends with a local woman the Burns gang brutally raped and killed. David Wenham plays Fletcher, the boss, as a bowler-hatted, starch-shirted dandy who pressures Stanley for blood while fussing over his own suit. Emily Watson brings to the character of the wife an overriding sense of decency and humanity, qualities that seem increasingly like a liability as the film marches grimly on.
In fact, every single actor in this film is magnificent, and none more so than the American Danny Huston playing the keystone role as the sociopathically charming Arthur Burns. Director John Hillcoat lets the movie run nearly 40 minutes before Arthur is even glimpsed onscreen, a similar technique to that used in King Kong. And like the savage ape, for the first third of the movie Arthur lurks in the back of the viewer's mind, a menace only hinted at with fear. Even the rebel aboriginals are afraid of the fearsome "dog man" who lives in the rocks. When Arthur and Charlie finally do reunite, the viewer is surprised. Arthur is an affable, wisecracking Irishman who is fond of literature and seems to exhibit genuine care for his brothers. However, Hillcoat and Cave never let the viewer completely forget that Arthur is a vicious rapist and murderer. There are a few significant shots were Arthur is sitting alone, glaring off into space with a startlingly vacant expression. He is a perfect sociopath: a homicidal maniac wearing a jocular mask of sanity.
Consider one of the film's best dialogue exchanges: Arthur and his gang (the psychotic, childlike Samuel Stoat and the tough aborigine Two-Bob) are getting set to ride off to commit a horrific act of violence. They stop to admire a sunset:
Samuel: It sure is pretty.
Arthur: You can never get your fill of nature, Samuel; to be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart: the mountains, the trees, the endless plains. The moon, the myriad of stars. Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners.
Samuel: What's a misanthrope, Arthur?
Two-Bob: Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger.
Samuel: Hey! I didn't ask you, you black bastard.
Arthur: He's right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.
Samuel: Is that what we are? Misanthropes?
Arthur: (smiling) Good Lord, no. We're a family!
Huston plays this role with considerable depth and great mastery. He explores the idea of a man with an ostensible sense of "family", and culture, but utterly bereft of human decency and empathy.
Guy Pearce is pitch-perfect as the introverted Charlie Burns. With his stringy, lanky muscles and greasy, matted hair, Pearce looks less like a man raised in the desert as he does a man made of the desert, with any trace of fat, and weakness, and civilization boiled away by the sun. Pearce plays him with heavy resignation: he knows what he has to do but is reluctant. It's more than just that, though. Charlie Burns is resigned to his life; he is a hopeless character. Doing the right thing by taking Mikey and escaping the gang leads directly to the ghastly catch-22 that he finds himself in.
On the subject of characters, a special mention must be given to the great John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a self-styled intellectual and bounty hunter that quotes Darwin and holds nonwhites in elevated contempt. Hurt plays the role with a transfixing theatrical bombast, and after viewing the film it's easy to forget that he's onscreen for less than ten minutes. In a film packed to the gills with performances of surpassing excellence, Hurt distinguishes himself by reciting every line like it's a precious treasure: he portrays a man so self-interested that he speaks like a Shakespearean actor, like he's delivering lines from a stage. It takes a very good actor to play a bad actor, and Hurt steals the show for the duration of his appearance.
The blasted, alien landscapes of the Australian outback command a considerable amount of attention from the camera, and Hillcoat is wise to allow himself many long and reflective shots of the terrain. The cracked ground and gnarled, twisted trees look like they belong on Venus. Thick black flies cling to living people as if they were corpses. The implication, of course, being that there are places on Earth that human beings were simply not meant to inhabit. Does the fact that humans persist in these environs speak more of human ingenuity or of human stupidity? This foolhardy will to conquer is, I suppose, one of the greater mysteries of our species.
With that in mind, central to the thematic scope of the film is the notion of savagery as opposed with civilization, and the ambiguity with which both are manifested. “I will civilise this land,” intones Captain Stanley several times in the film, although it smacks more of self-assurance than of conviction. Special attention is paid to Stanley's wife and her carefully cultivated English frontyard garden, which is juxtaposed almost comically against the hellish Australian desert just beyond the fence. At several points in the film, the garden is used as a representation of English civilization encroaching upon the land, which is itself resistant to that force. It is a barrier, also, against the wild, and against the specter of Arthur Burns and the violence, the violation of order, that he represents.
Before the film's brutal climax, Stanley dismisses his aboriginal butler. The man removes his oxford shoes before walking beyond the fence of the garden, and a shot lingers on the empty shoes. This separation represents a physical transition from forced decency back to natural chaos, both in terms of the characters in the scene and in terms of the narrative of the film itself, very much like the shattering of Piggy's spectacles in The Lord of the Flies.
Mrs Stanley herself represents decency, and femininity, society, and polite Christianity; all the delicate social constructs that the harsh environment annihilates without much effort. The only God present in this film is a complete and palpable absence. "I was, in days gone-by, a believer," says one character, "But alas, I came to this beleaguered land, and the God in me just...evaporated."
Pearce and Winstone’s dual protagonistic roles, which represent reasoned nuance, contrast sharply with the extreme and uncompromising characters of Arthur Burns and Eden Fletcher, who inhabit the opposite ends of the film‘s savage/civilized spectrum. Charlie Burns and Captain Stanley are trapped in a position where they must choose between a sort of self-contained virtue for which they will receive nothing but contempt, and capitulation to the pressures of their respective societies. Stanley eventually capitulates, whereas Charlie does not. The Arthur Burns and Fletcher characters, representing the black-and-white extremes of anarchic chaos and social control, eventually reveal their complete indifference to the plight of the characters they seek to influence.
The Proposition shows, therefore, that while it is morally ambiguous, it is not indifferent. In this, it is similar to Leone’s Man With No Name series, wherein the Clint Eastwood character is drawn to a kind of virtue that at first appears to be self-serving, but in actuality is more complex. He is not virtuous because society demands it of him, he is virtuous simply because his own nature makes him inclined to be so. And so it is with Charlie Burns.
It is interesting that most of the greatest Westerns have been made by non-American filmmakers. In some regards I suppose Westerns are similar to science fiction; they manipulate a setting in order to explore certain depths of the human heart that can't be explored within the ordered bounds of contemporary society. This drive is universal. The parallels between Australia's wild frontier period and America's are also fascinating. Consideration is certainly given in this film to the similarities with which the native peoples on both frontiers were treated, a nod to the troubled history America (and American Western film) has had concerning Native Americans.
The screenplay was written by Australian musician Nick Cave, and his love of language is apparent. The tight, spare dialogue embodies the adage "show, don't tell." It is a deeply impressive script, influenced by Conrad and Golding, fully embracing the figurative heart of darkness that lurked above and below the surface of the works of both writers. Cave also composed the film score, and I can say unreservedly that it's one of the best film scores I've ever heard, filled with droning fiddles and eerie hums. Sometimes a barely perceptible buzz will underscore an entire scene, filling every gap with tension. It is brilliant stuff.
I have seen The Proposition about ten times now, but I still find myself startled, intrigued, and amazed by the depth of its themes and performances. Its eerie tone, literary scope, and gorgeous photographic style make it a thoroughly commanding work. See this film.