The Proposition

May, 2006, Drama


In America’s post-WW II era, (the twilight of Western movies) heroes  bore little resemblance to the white-hat types like Tom Mix, Gary Cooper and John Wayne which preceded them. By 1969, director Sam Peckinpah inverted the traditional view of the protagonist as hero, creating a motley gang of vicious bank robbers in The Wild Bunch whose villainy became appealing when contrasted with the even more despicable behavior of the characters they confronted. In Peckinpah’s hands, fascination with society’s outsiders - - those who play by rules of their own making rather than those of the community - - seemed tragically romantic and an appropriate way of dealing with an age in which conventional morality and norms of acceptable behavior were being subjected to an often chaotic scrutiny. 

Within two years however, Clint Eastwood created a policeman who also lived by his own rules. Dirty Harry became a cinematic icon headed in precisely the opposite direction from Peckinpah’s outlaws. Eastwood’s hard-nosed, thuggish cop justified taking justice into his own hands in order to deal with those who sought sanctuary behind the very statutes intended to protect law-abiding citizens. Where are the proper boundaries, these films wonder, between “do your own thing” autonomy and the obligations we owe one another as citizens in a free society? Can society’s pursuit of those who live outside the law become more evil than the acts those laws were created to punish?  (Not an unimportant question to consider, post 9/11.) 

That’s the premise to be found in The Proposition, an Australian “western’ set in Queensland in the 1880’s. A gang of cut-throats which includes three brothers murders an entire family on a remote ranch; when the youngest two siblings are captured, Captain Stanley, (Ray Winstone) the local police chief, offers Charlie, the middle brother, a choice; bring in Arthur, (his older brother and the gang’s leader) dead or alive, or younger brother Michael goes to the gallows. Charlie rides off into the outback to track down his older sibling, but the townspeople aren’t satisfied with Stanley’s unconventional bargain; over the policeman’s ineffective objections, they publicly flog Michael so severely his death is guaranteed whether Charlie delivers Arthur to the authorities or not. When the two older brothers stage a jail break and rescue Michael only to watch him die, Arthur, (played with surprising effectiveness by Danny Huston) decides to attack Stanley’s home to rape and murder his wife. Faced with the prospect of still more violence, Charlie challenges his brother’s decision, delivering a rough justice all his own.

While Charlie is the lynchpin of this storyline, Arthur and Stanley embody the plot’s moral ambiguity. Both characters are large men; Winstone’s physical bulk belies Stanley’s lack of inner strength, while Houston provides Arthur with a rich combination of  Irish charm and bloodthirsty vigor that neatly captures his primal, intimidating presence. Not since Bogart disdainfully ignored the law and eliminated Leslie Howard in  The Petrified Forest has the seductive attraction of brute force been so compellingly presented. Arthur personifies the outcast who knowingly chooses to obey only his own appetites and interests, while Stanley represents mere bureaucracy. His supply of personal courage and integrity falls far short of what his  job requires. And like the venal townspeople in High Plains Drifter, the citizens Stanley has been hired to protect seem morally unworthy even of his feeble efforts. Can Arthur and his clan really be no worse than those they victimize? Director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave have fashioned a grim, dog-eat-dog world with no sympathy for either the winners or losers and even less conviction that one can be distinguished from the other.

All this is accompanied with stunning cinematography that captures  the primal beauty of Australia’s hinterlands and uniformly impressive performances by the entire cast. Pierce once again appears to have narrowed his physique to whippet dimensions in order to convey a man at war with himself and Emily Watson delivers a delicately nuanced portrait of Stanley’s supposedly demure wife who is the first to endorse the flogger’s whip. John Hurt is terrific as a deceptively vicious bounty hunter, although the script provides him with far too many clever verbal riffs for someone in that gruesome trade.

Screenwriter Cave is a musician by trade and someone of prominence down under; as such, he’s also responsible for this film’s score, which includes a wide selection of eerie songs often accompanied by unintelligible lyrics. They considerably heighten the film’s sense of foreboding, but provide little in the way of accessible commentary on the motivations of its characters. 

Vibrant, gory and ultimately nihilistic, Hillcoat and Cave have delivered a film that resembles Brueghel’s view of 16th century peasant society run amok. There’s visceral impact here, but greater restraint would have served The Proposition’s purpose far better.        


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