Top 10 Films: #3 The Proposition
Some might criticise this selection as being biased as this is one of two titles in my Top 10 that is scored by Nick Cave. However the genius of The Proposition appeals well beyond the haunting score and sublime writing (the film was also written by Cave) to reveal an ensemble of powerful performances exploring philosophical themes as wide ranging as love, death, ethics, alienation, Darwinism and colonialization. Not to mention that is is a cinematographic masterpiece.
The Proposition is the second in a ‘trilogy’ of films created by director John Hillcoat and writer/composer Nick Cave. While Ghosts of the Civil Dead is a remarkable and bold first feature and The Road a haunting portrayal of survival and family devotion, it is The Proposition that shines brightest from their creative partnership.
The film is set in rural Australia in the late 19th century and follows the classic western formula where lawman Captain Stanley (played by the always endearing Ray Winstone) is sent to apprehend the Burns gang for the heinous crimes. After capturing younger brothers Mike (Richard Wilson) and Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), Stanley offers a proposition:
Captain Stanley: I wish to present you with a proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a God-forsaken place. The blacks won’t go there, not the tracks; not even wild men. I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans, I aim to bring him down – I aim to show that he’s a man like any other. I aim to hurt him.
Sergeant Lawrence: When you’re ready, sir…
Captain Stanley: And what will most hurt him? Well I thought long and hard about that, and I’ve realized Mr. Burns, that I must become more inventive in my methods. But those be my words listen to me now, *don’t* say a word. Now suppose I told there was a way to save your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse, and a gun. Suppose Mr. Burns, I was to give you and your young brother Mikey here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you a chance to expunge the guilt, beneath which you so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you ’til Christmas. Now, suppose you tell me what it is I want from you.
Charlie Burns: You want me to kill me brother.
Captain Stanley: I want you to kill your brother.
What follows is probably the most honest portrait of colonial Australia ever committed to film. The audience is dragged along by anti-hero Charlie Burns, both through Pearce’s hypnotizing performance and by the ethical choices his character is forced to make. There are times when you feel oppressed by the heat and vast loneliness of the country and other times when you are lured in (like many of Cave’s songs) to a place of pain, suffering and alienation. This is not a modern alienation (like that described so poignantly by Radiohead in OK Computer), but one which is played out under the spectre of colonialization, where the cultivating of hostile land and being separated from place and people left the British feeling alone and betrayed, causing Captain Stanley to openly mourn; “What fresh hell is this?”
On the other side of the colonial coin sit the ‘blacks’, accurately depicted as not even second class citizens but as animals that can be mistreated, enslaved and murdered: surely the saddest tale in our nation’s history.
In The Propostition, Cave and Hillcoat have surely produced an historical epic worthy of praise in itself. However, by framing their narrative in this way they have subtly, yet brilliantly, used their [our] story as an allegory for modern Australia; one where both our bourgeois city and rural dwellers live in relative alienation, and our indigenous population remain second class citizens, both thorough cultural and physical oppression (the aboriginal health crisis is a perfect example of this: see Closing the Gap).
By simultaneously making The Proposition the story of our past and our present, Cave and Hillcoat have isolated a number of key themes which explore what is means to be Australian. In alluding to modern issues such as ethical choice, alienation, post-colonialism, indigenous welfare and reconciliation (of which we have only made a few tentative steps), the writer and director have drawn our attention to the diversity, loneliness and inequality inherent in our current society.
This thematic depth, combined with cave’s haunting score & poetry and Hillcoat’s mesmerizing cinematography & editing, poises The Proposition to lay claim the greatest Australian film ever produced.