The Gunslingers of Oz
The Proposition is a startling evocation of humanity at its most base and Hobbesian. It makes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly look genteel.
It’s 1880 in Queensland, Australia. Charlie Burns has been sent out into the sweltering outback to kill his brother. After being apprehended in a savage whorehouse gunfight, Charlie has been forced to choose between his lily-livered younger brother Mikey and his elder, psychopathic sibling, Arthur. If he doesn’t drag back Arthur’s scalp by Christmas, Mikey will hang.
The proposition has been put to him by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a sweaty, troubled Brit seconded to this fresh hell to civilize it. The Captain believes he’ll find some salvation in this stoic Irish outlaw, clinging to the belief that Charlie (Guy Pearce) yearns for redemption as much as he does. What Captain Stanley doesn’t know, though, is that there is no redemption in this feral crucible. Not for anyone.
Not long after Charlie has set out, he runs into a drunken English bounty-hunter named Jellon Lamb (John Hurt). The man has seen Arthur Burns’ photograph on a poster and hopes to trade a dead mick for unfathomable fortune. Lamb, in turns out, has just read the recently-published The Origin of Species. “You know what that Darwin says?” Lamb hisses. “He says we are related to the darkies. That we are one and the same as monkeys.”
The struggle to act human in a world saturated with blood (Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian transplanted Down Under) is Prince of Darkness-cum-screenwriter Nick Cave’s principal theme. Even Arthur Burns (played on the knife-edge between gentility and savagery by a superb Danny Houston) comes across as a searcher of sorts—a man who discovers that the secret to life lies in familial love one moment and commences a murderous rampage the next.
The landscape itself reduces all men and women to their barest, most heinous selves. It blows its filth into every eye and tears away at even the firmest of armours. The flies never stop swarming. There’s blood caked into everyone’s skin.
The outback is offset by Captain Stanley’s house, painstakingly kept-up by his ever-concerned wife (Emily Watson). In contrast to the remainder of the cast, Watson remains lily-white and immaculate throughout, coming down from her little slice of England on the hill to beg her husband retire with her. Once there, they sip tea beneath a portrait of Queen Victoria and celebrate Christmas with fine china.
Even she, though, cannot escape the taint of director John Hillcoat’s world, ultimately standing with the crowd demanding young Mikey Burns be publicly flogged. Though she is motivated by recurrent nightmares about the rape and murder of her then-pregant friend Liza Hopkins at the hands of the Burns gang, Mrs. Stanley’s bloodlust makes her a distinct part of the film’s doomed world. The line that Stanley struggles to keep between home and office, between “I” and “other” is thus erased.
As Cave and Hillcoat have said in interviews, they wanted to make a film without clever twists, a film where actors are people rather than plot vehicles. The Proposition sees its characters’ fates mapped out from the get-go. In the end, the struggle to be human—one undertaken by everyone, including the many aboriginal characters forced into servility and submission by their colonizers—is impossible to win. That’s where the beauty of the film lies: in the characters’ struggles with fates beyond their control. As Cave has said, “It was a group of people being in a place that they shouldn’t really be.”
To those who enjoy screen violence that is poeticized to make a point—rather than when it is employed for merely stylistic reasons—The Proposition is a haunting existential tragedy.
The prize winners from the 2006 Inside Out festival were announced on the weekend:
Best Canadian Feature Length Narrative or Documentary:Amnesia: The James Brighton Enigma (dir. Denis Langois) and 533 Statements (dir. Tori Foster) (tie)
Best Canadian Female Short Award: Sweater People (dir. Nicole Chung)
Colin Campbell Award For Best Canadian Male Short: Jean Genet in Chicago (dir. Fredric Moffat)
Best Up-and-Coming Toronto Film Or Video Maker Award: A Girl Named Kai (dir. Kai Ling Xue)
Best Female Director Award: This Way Out (dir. Jill Burnett)
JWR Award For Best Original Screenwriting: John and Michael (dir. Shira Avni)
Showcase Award for Best Feature Film or Video ($1,000 cash award): A Love to Hide (dir. Christian Faure)
Elle Flanders Documentary Award for Best Documentary or Video (Presented by NOW) ($500 cash award): The End of Second Class (dir. Nancy Nicol)
Mikey/Schmikey Award for Best Short Film or Video ($1,000 cash award): Latch Key (dir. Garth Bardsley) and In Search of My Chinese Girlfriend (dir. Lisa Wong) (tie)