December 1, 2016
The Proposition – Australia, 2005
There’s something familiar about John Hillcoat’s The Proposition, something that, despite all the film has going for it, prevents it from being the masterstroke that it had the potential to be. We’ve simply seen it before. The film’s basic elements are so familiar that even though the characters don’t know what will eventually happen, the audience should be able to. If for any reason they can’t, close attention to the dialogue should yield a few fairly obvious clues. After all, when a character says a variation of the standard “If you do this, we’ll all pay the price,” it’s a safe bet that a) an unwise action will be carried out and b) someone will seek revenge sooner or later.
The Proposition begins with a whisper from the grave - in its opening credits we see real black and white photos of 19th century Australia, pictures which establish the formality and segregation of those times. Eventually, the images turn deadlier, with depictions of dead bodies, physical mistreatment, and the constant presence of guns, hinting at a time of violence and peril. These are indeed wicked times filled with far too many wicked people.
The film opens with a gun battle between a small group of young men inside a small wood home and an unknown force that clearly has more fire power than they do. Very soon we see two of them handcuffed and seated in front of one Captain Morris Stanley. The two prisoners are members of a family of outlaws whose most recent crime involved the murder of a family of three, one a baby. Stanley should lock them both up, but he makes the older one a deal: Find and kill his elusive older brother, and he and his younger brother will go free.
From there, the film follows two paths. In the first one, we watch the captain and see the repercussions of his unusual offer. Interestingly, the film gives us a view of his home life and the strain that his job puts on him and his wife, played by Emily Blount. We also see that Stanley is surrounded by men far less moral and upright than he is, men who seem just as eager to engage in violence as the criminals they are pursuing. Throughout the film, Captain Stanley repeats a chilling mantra, “This land will be civilized,” and yet as the film progresses, he comes to be seen as one of the most decent characters, a man looking for reason and order in a land that he views as sorely lacking it, yet pursuing it in the most humane way possible. Later in the film, we meet his superior, a man who demonstrates just how much Stanley is swimming against the stream. To this character, strategy is for fools; it is far better just to kill anyone who stands in their way.
The film’s second path follows the actions of Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce), the brother given the proposal. His path is a familiar, yet consistently fascinating one, that of a path into the heart of darkness. He crosses inhospitable land, meets an eccentric character who quotes Darwin, but mocks the notion that mankind evolved from animals, and frequently finds himself in mortal danger, all the while contemplating whether to fulfill his part of the captain’s indecent proposal.
I found both of these stories fascinating, and I admired the film for its portrayal of imperfect characters trying to survive imperfect times. I was also pleasantly surprised that when the elusive older brother finally makes an appearance, he is far from the maniacal, half-crazed figure I expected – although these traits do eventually appear. Instead, he is a man who enjoys sitting on a rock and watching the sun rise while marveling at the beauty of a world that he is helping to turn blood red.
The Proposition has been compared to the works of Sergio Leone, and the comparison is an apt one. Leone specialized in placing characters in situations that called for them to either be the heroic people they were or to find the courage within themselves. Charlie Burns and Captain Stanley both match this description. It helps that The Proposition is set during such difficult times, times when the law was not always lawful, when people justified terrible acts with a vision of tomorrow being better than today, and when racism blinded people to the horror going on around them. I also admired the way the film contains lessons in Australian history without being overtly preachy. We see the existence of several groups, Native Australians, Irish immigrants, and Australians of British ancestry, and get a good sense of the animosity that existed at that time. Sometimes in a film of this sort, the backdrop can prove to be more compelling than the central narrative. Fortunately, that is not the case here.
Sure, the film is not entirely original, yet it tells an unoriginal story in a fresh way. The film is aided greatly by the superb performances of the cast, especially Pierce, Winstone, and Emily Blunt. I also appreciated Hillcoat’s use of imagery and landscape shots, in particular his depiction of an idyllic garden in the middle of Australia’s harsh and overbearing dry heat. It’s as if he was saying that there was beauty even in the worst and most punishing of environments, that there was still something to be cherished in a land at war with itself. Again, not an entirely novel concept, but one rarely presented as well as it is here. (on DVD and Blu-ray)