Essential Film: The Proposition

Director: John Hillcoat

Released: 2005

The Proposition


By Scott McNee

The dissonant soundtrack is, by this point, something of a cliché. Audiences have come to expect a maudlin violin over a scene of chaos, or the cheery pop-song that accompanies a shootout in god-knows how many films. Perhaps the scariest thing about The Proposition is that music that should be dissonant, should pull the viewer back, fits perfectly.

Nick Cave pulls double duty as both writer and composer (the latter position shared with Warren Ellis) in this grim Australian Western. Cave’s recognisable vocals are toned down, and much of the score is whispered and violin-based – with sudden, upsetting screeches late in the film. The opening credits establish British Imperial rule in Australia in the 1880s with a slideshow of real photographs, accompanied by Andrew Young’s childish hymn ‘There is a Happy Land’. Among the photos are images of Aboriginals in chains, herded into pens – and English settlers riding very Victorian horse and carriages through primeval desert. What began as dissonant becomes disturbingly apt, he hymn reflecting the mind-set of an Empire shackling and torturing a country that it does not understand.

Director John Hillcoat, who would later collaborate with Cave and Ellis on a similarly hopeless world in The Road and less successfully with the juvenile bootlegging drama Lawless, presides over an outback devoid of life, a landscape suffocated by the sun and satanic swarms of flies. The only kangaroo in this Australia is dead – hanging limp from a tree as Guy Pearce cooks its limbs over a campfire. Out of this stillness come explosions of violence – characters are speared, stabbed, shot in the face, flogged, tortured and in one horrifying moment even stomped to death. It is often over in seconds, and as the viewer recovers the sun has already baked the blood and brain matter into the dust.

Guy Pearce stars as Charlie Burns, an Irish outlaw hired by the British Police Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone in the best, and sweatiest, role of his career) to kill his brother Arthur (Danny Huston). Should Charlie refuse, or fail, his little brother Mikey will be hanged in his place. At first, the audience will struggle to understand Charlie’s conflict, because as Stanley puts it ‘Arthur Burns is a monster’. We only see the burned out aftermath of ‘the Hopkins Massacre’ engineered by Arthur, and it is no less sickening. And yet once Huston makes his first real appearance midway through the film, we understand. A wild-eyed Rasputin figure, Arthur is a walking rebuttal to the delusions of the Empire. His gang is part Irish and part Aboriginal, rebellious worker drones. It makes them no less evil, but as Arthur tramples an English rose garden and exposes it to the outback, the viewer may concede that they have a point.

Back in his Queensland backwater, Captain Stanley suffers the aftermath of his proposition as both his traumatised wife Martha (Emily Watson) and the loathsome Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) pressure him to hang Mikey ahead of time. As the face of the Empire , Fletcher is appropriately rage inducing, and a scene in which he condescendingly thanks Martha several times for setting out his tea is as monstrous as his genocidal campaigns against the natives. Famous aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (of Walkabout fame) plays the tracker Jacko, hired by the policemen to aid their campaigns against his own people. Tom E Lewis (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) is his counterpart, a powerful, intelligent figure associated with the Burns Gang, and loathes Jacko above any Imperial, referring to him as ‘dog’. The rest of the aboriginals are mostly unseen, darting in and out of the film as a guerrilla resistance – bodies filled with spears dot the landscape. As Captain Stanley imports a Christmas tree and Fletcher hews to Victorian etiquette, Australia rejects its occupiers.

Appearing for a mere two scenes amidst all these other characters is the film’s true heart – John Hurt’s drunken racist bounty hunter Jellon Lamb. His first appearance, a five minute monologue delivered to a bewildered Charlie and a corpse, is a blackly comic rant against the era, the landscape, and Earth in general. Lamb scoffs at the idea of evolution, struggling to recognise two races of humans as the same species, much less man’s line of descent; at the same time he rails against religion, which he claims has ‘evaporated’ in this ‘beleaguered land’. ‘To the god who has forgotten us!’ he cheers, in his nihilism the only character who proves true to his principles (or lack thereof).

The score aches throughout all of this, mumbling and straining the human cost of a heated Imperial slaughterhouse. Hymns, anthems and drinking ballads become the coda to appalling violence. Cave and Ellis wait for the ends credits for the groaning soundtrack to come together in the beautiful ‘Rider Song’. ‘What are you going to do now?’ asks the film’s final line, and the soundtrack suggests that all there is to do is wait until the weariness overwhelms the bloodshed.



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