Proposition, The

The Proposition

dir: John Hillcoat

I still have the soundtrack by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave ringing in my ears. For in truth that is probably the most successful part of the film.

This so-called Australian “Western” has little going for it except lovely postcard visuals, a melancholy tension, people with bad teeth giving good performances and a hell of a lot of brutality.

Let’s face it, the starting point of British colonialism in this country was anything but auspicious or pleasant for any of the people involved. The town of Banyon serves as the “hell” in the line uttered by one of the film’s many characters, “What fresh hell is this…”, though he is in fact talking about all of Australia.

Though the land has its empty natural beauty, it looks like what much of it is: hostile and inhospitable. Of course the film plays this up and makes it look like the first whities here must have been insane to stay. As well as being very dirty all of the time.

Many people star in this flick, many people were involved, and so it comes with many expectations. Maybe a stack of people are going to think it’s the bee’s knees. For me it was more like the flea’s disease.

It looks authentic, despite its clear lack of authenticity; it has a melancholy, tense feel to it throughout; the script and dialogue are rich in language, the performances are decent and the music adds to the story instead of being distracting. But there are still issues which make me less than happy about it.

The dual problems for me are that, and they do follow on from each other: I don’t know why anyone does any of the things they do in the story, and there seems to be an hour missing. Far be it from me to advocate that anyone make a 3 hour film when, in the opinions of these film makers, 104 minutes were sufficient to tell this story.

Part of me thinks had they given the story more room to breath, the characters more time for their stories to be told, then this could genuinely have been a masterpiece, not only of Australian cinema, but for the world.

As it stands, it’s an interesting but unsatisfying glimpse into a time in Australian history, reconfigured into an American West construct, with numerous elements borrowed from other recent, revisionist Westerns, and Apocalypse Now, or, if you want to get picky, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mikey are captured by troopers at a Chinese whorehouse. They are members of a gang of bushrangers wanted for the rape and murder of the Hopkins family. Noah Taylor gets not a word of dialogue, and is killed in these opening few seconds playing one of the gang members. It doesn’t even qualify as a cameo. I guess he just had to be in a film written by Nick Cave, no matter how inconsequential the part.

In the first few minutes, we are told the meaning of the film’s title: Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) tells Charlie that he will hang his brother Mikey on Christmas Day unless Charlie goes into the hills and kills the gang’s leader, his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston).

That’s the proposition. Save one brother by killing the other.

Arthur seems to have gone native, living in an area the troopers are scared to enter, muttering philosophical and poetic monologues few others understand, with an indigenous girlfriend and another indigenous guy who has gone native in the other direction.

The Captain and his wife Martha (Emily Watson), try to carve out a tiny acre of Britannia in the harsh outback, trying to bring a piece of civilisation to the barbaric landscape. He tells different characters multiple times that he will civilise this part of the new nation, come what may.

Captain Stanley starts off seeming to be a cruel autocrat taking advantage of the place’s lack of social structures to be a sadistic dictator, but as the story meanders on we see he possesses far more complexity than that. We just don’t know why, and we don’t get to find out.

Charlie turns into the Willard character from Apocalypse Now, and Arthur becomes Kurtz. They even play the roles the same, just without the constant voice-over or shaved head.

One act of brutality seems to be Cave’s answer to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which tries to top the scourging scene as best it can. The image of the saturated cat o’ nine tails whip after it has delivered 34 of the expected 100 lashes is particularly wet and horrific.

Other scenes of extreme violence abound, but I’m hardly the kind of reviewer to complain about a bit of the red stuff splashing about. I don’t know if colonialism in Australia really was this bloody, but I bet exterminating people isn’t all hugs and puppies.

There is little humour to be found in the flick, a serious tone abounds, as if to break the portentous atmosphere would cause the movie to flounder. I don’t think it necessarily would have been the case. The only humour you could really have here is of the blacker than blacker variety, and the few examples, visually and spoken, amount to that.

Conveniently, whenever people are going to chat, it’s only going to happen when the sunset or the dawn looks absolutely perfect behind them. It must have been difficult to organise chats back in the old days if everything had to be so goddamn photogenic all the time as a prerequisite to idle chatter.

The cinematography is superlative throughout, but deliberately showy. Take out the sunrise and sunset shots and all you have left is scenes of dirty people covered in flies.

I’ve never seen so many real flies in my life. It was hideous! The actors must have swallowed a shitload of them. I hope they got danger money for this flick, because, goddamn, it must have been hard to act with flies crawling into your mouth. These stars, they deserve every penny they get, I tell you what.

Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat work well together. Twice they’ve collaborated, and twice the resulting flicks have been memorable. Although time will tell if anyone remembers The Proposition in 17 years time, unlike the brutal and scarring Ghosts… of the Civil Dead. The two men must share parts of the same divine or profane madness.

The strange themes that permeate the flick alternate between the notions of morality and civilisation being imposed on a hell where they can’t yet exist, and a strange perversion of the idea of family. Every film and its dog usually has the wonderfulness of family as its theme, but here it undergoes a curious perversion, to the film’s benefit.

The ending, well, the ending is appropriate, I just wish I understood why a particular character does what he does. It doesn’t make that much sense to me because I didn’t really have a sense of what the character was about, except that he liked drinking and smoking a lot, and being a consumptive-looking Christ surrogate.

Where it has shortcomings, it has virtues that almost make you forget them. Almost. The soundtrack really helps.

Judge for yourself. Nick Cave’s gothic Wild West Australiana is not for the faint of heart or bladder, but be assured that many decent people do decent work here, and it’s a decent, if not great film that Australians don’t need to be ashamed of. Which is, as always, a relief.

7 times someone shouldn’t be able to get up from a spear through the chest out of 10

“Be humble of heart, Charlie, for we are seeing the end of things.” – Arthur Burns, The Proposition.