I Will Civilize This Land: The Proposition (2005)

A certain sort of westernized frame work, coincidentally enough, leads to the western being a film whose setting must necessarily exist within the frameworks of America or its bordering nations, even when filmed entirely in Italy, as was the case for spaghetti westerns.  Yet, other nations have proven to offer their own spins and reconsiderations of the western genre, some create desert spaces to justify their presence instead becoming homages more so than actual situated westerns.  However, Australia, given its vast outback and problematic relationship with its own native populations proves to more than an appropriate setting for a western film, certified by the absolutely stunning and visually devastating 2005 film The Proposition.  Directed by John Hillcoat and based on a script by musician/writer Nick Cave, it is a desolate and bleak consideration of the world of the west, demanding in the historical context of failing British colonization that viewers truly consider what they find idyllic about any wild land, whether it relate to the Australian outback specifically or extend beyond to the entire running over of nations on a global scale.  The Proposition does not step away from the graphic, instead; the camera lingers on the the bloodied limbless bodies and the destruction brought about by feuding ideologies, never stepping away from the severely violent world, for to do so would be to betray the historical realities of such an era.  A wild gunman in the context of The Proposition is depicted with an appropriate degree of concerned gravitas, as opposed to unquestioned adoration, much as the initial villains of the film prove to be caught in their own cogs of performance and expectations that cause them to engage in behavior for which they are always ashamed.  Where a film like Saving Private Ryan would use blood in heavy does to cast a grit over poetic and angelic figures, The Proposition uses blood to stain their identities, reminding each person who navigates this near magical realist world that each solitary action has extended consequences which will forever affect one's ability to move about in the world, and in more problematic scenarios it will affect the ability of those closest to them in dire and destructive ways.

The Proposition begins in the midst of a historically infamous rape and murder of the family by the gang known as the Burns Brothers.  The trio includes the silent but authoritative Charlie (Guy Pearce), the youngest brother and wide-eyed accomplice Mikey (Richard Wilson), both of whom are hap hazardously led by the oldest and most notorious brother Arthur (Danny Huston).  When the shootout at the Hopkins family home goes sour, both Charlie and Mikey are arrested by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) a man whose desires to civilize the aboriginal peoples are constantly frustrated and detracted by the actions of the Burns Brothers and others.  Realizing that he does not possess the skills or men to track down Arthur who managed to escape during the fight, Stanley offers Charlie the proposition of Mikey's life in exchange for Charlie killing his own brother.  Charlie begrudingly agrees realizing that he values his younger brothers more innocent life over that of his villainous and maddened brother.  Charlie is also one of the few people who is capable of getting within range of Arthur's camp a location both the authorities and aboriginals fear.  While Charlie is tracking down his brother, a task that happens quite quickly, Stanley deals with his own affairs, particularly providing a safe space for his wife Martha (Emily Watson) to live.  Stanley attempts repeatedly to distract his wife from the woes of the outback, but when Stanley is approached by a superior and told that he must publicly flog Mikey for his actions, Martha is shown the tragic world of the outback and its layers of violence.  After a run-in with aboriginal people, Charlie makes it to the camp and reconsiders his willingness to kill is brother in the process.  Following an encounter with an aged bounty hunter Charlie is reminded of the psychotic nature of his brother, although he ignores this and suggest that they break their brother out of jail, a task that ends up in Mikey's death.  Arthur follows-up by exacting violent revenge upon Stanley, while a posse member rapes Martha in front of his eyes.  Walking in on this, Charlie kills both the posse member and shoots his brother twice, realizing it was, ultimately, his terrible  decisions that led to this point, although since he is his brother, he sits lovingly with him as the sun sets and he fades into death.

The Proposition is almost too otherworldly to be considered a realist western, in fact, as I briefly suggested in the opening paragraph there is a certain quality of magical realism about the film.  The character of Charlie seems far more a spirit who moves through the outback on a quest for self-understanding and meaning in the face of incredible suffering and alienation.  In fact, considering that this is very much set in the Australian outback one could read this as a walkabout of sorts for Charlie who must come to the decision as to which brother he is willing to lose.  Of course, the walkabout is not a trope of the western per se, but in some of the more revisionist and Native American oriented westerns the idea of the spirit quest certainly proves a continual theme.  I would certainly argue that the film is as much a spirit quest for Charlie as it is anything else.  Even when one considers that half of the narrative is tied to the experiences of Stanley, one could read this as a sort of clinging, on the part of Charlie to a previous world of traditionalism and civilization, and as Stanley comes to realize that his own notions of Britain as being a figure of civilized colonization to be a lie, so too does Charlie come to realize that the world is a malleable and constantly shifting space, one that allows him to inexplicably blow the head off of an aboriginal who has downed him with a spear, even if the act involved a bit of aid from others its initial dreamlike quality cannot be overlooked.  Much in the vein of a spirit quest, Charlie encounters figures who defy logic and seem to only exist on his spectral plane whether it be the drunken bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) or the grotesque version of Stanley post-beating by Arthur.  The question then becomes whether or not his quest is a success, the obvious answer would be to say no, because in the process he has lost both brothers, of which one could claim were at his own hands.  However, it is also quite possible that the his siblings serve as respective weights to the physical world, Mikey being the burden of fear and Arthur being he entanglement of sin and lust.  It is the loss of these in the final moments of the film that seem to allow Charlie a final respite, the camera jumping starkly back as he sits next to his dying brother, perhaps suggest Charlie's spirt leaving its corporeal cage.

Key Scene:  The whipping/singing scene is tragedy and beauty met in a jarring yet captivating manner.

This movie is excellent and helps to stand as a reminder that not al revisionist westerns need rely on humor to be engaging. The bluray is a must.