The Proposition

(John Hillcoat, Australia/UK, 2005)


What a difference a film makes. The Proposition, a British-Australian co-production, already has media pundits chattering about a revival in the fortunes of Australian cinema, especially in the brief period of time that also contains Look Both Ways (2005) and Wolf Creek (2005).

But, on another level, it also suddenly brings into focus a genuine auteur who has previously seemed something of an outsider, on the margins of our film industry: John Hillcoat.

Apart from his well-regarded career as a music video director (signing several of the best clips of the past twenty years, such as Nick Cave's "Jack the Ripper"), Hillcoat was, until now, remembered chiefly as the director of a brave, singular, punk-style prison movie, Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead (1988), and a less successful shot at contemporary melodrama, To Have and to Hold (1996).

With The Proposition, it is instantly apparent what binds all three Hillcoat features – they are tenaciously focused on the relations of power and violence that define a society, whether in its institutions (jail), its intimate arrangements (a married couple) or its "founding" history of settlement. Humanist sentiments of reciprocal love or empathetic compassion seem very far from the world Hillcoat portrays; domination and subjugation are all-pervasive, sometimes met by a resistance that is just as fierce.

Hillcoat brings his bleak but powerfully lucid view of social relations to bear on Australia's colonial history in The Proposition. Although the law enforcers, such as Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), speak frequently of "civilising the land", what passes for civilisation here merely hides the anarchic clash of opposing forces unable to share the same country: the British colonists with their unreal dreams of refinement and culture, the indigenous people turned into outlaws who now "hide" in the places where they once freely lived, and all those caught in-between, such as Charlie (Guy Pearce).

Stanley gives Charlie a proposition he can't refuse: to free his young brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), from jail and pardon him of certain crimes, Charlie must find and kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). But once Charlie, alone in the wilderness, is attacked by Aboriginal hunters, he must depend on Arthur and his cohorts for survival. An uneasy alliance between Arthur and Charlie begins, as the situation back in the "settlement" agonisingly unravels.

The Proposition fulfils an old ambition of Hillcoat's – at least as old as his Swinburne short, Frankie and Johnny (1981) – to make an "Australian Western".

The history of Australian cinema is not exactly lacking in attempts to make "bush Westerns". This tradition ranges from the many films about bushrangers (like Ned Kelly) that fill the early years of our national production, to films of a more contemporary sensibility like Philippe Mora's lively Mad Dog Morgan (1976).

What is different about The Proposition? Screenwriter Nick Cave (who also co-composed the musical score), in the manner of his "Murder Ballads", pushes the story to an elemental, mythic level. The psychology of the characters, although not always immediately clear, is stark in its primal motivations: love, hate, revenge, the desire to save or destroy one's brother.

The film adopts, unapologetically, the masculine bias of "pioneer" history as it has come down to us through American Westerns: Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), although a fascinating figure in her own right, stands for "civilisation" in all its fragility, and scarcely shares in the grand, primal passions that define the men.

One can sense a slight tension between Cave and Hillcoat's attitude towards this story. For Cave, the appeals to the ideal of family and the bond of brotherhood frequently asserted by Arthur stand for something positive in a hellish world. But Hillcoat renders this bond more coldly. Like in gangster films, the drama of belonging to a "gang" and being "stuck" to other people has a chilling, ambiguous, dangerous aspect.

The plot of The Proposition is slender, with very few "turning points". Once Charlie and Arthur are side by side, the narrative, like that of Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002), enters a tense "pause" mode: when will Charlie make his move?

Eventually, we come to understand (and this is clearer on a second viewing) that the story is structured less as a linear, forward-moving "journey" than as a dreamlike, circular tale of uncanny repetition: the event which precedes the film (the massacre of a family) will, in a sense, be revisited once the Burns boys land at Stanley and Martha's place. In this respect, The Proposition is more like a modern horror film – with its obsessive reworking of a primal trauma – than a Western.

In the absence of a conventionally "busy" plot, what happens throughout most of The Proposition? It is here that Hillcoat's approach to the material is boldest. He mixes what anthropologists call a "thick description" of daily life in this strange, unsettled society (wonderfully designed by Chris Kennedy) with extended, "contemplative" passages that study faces, objects, places of dwelling.

Although Benoît Delhomme's cinematography is, by any reckoning, beautiful, it is difficult to label the visual poetry of the film "lyrical". This is because Hillcoat's vision is truly hard-edged: his compositions emphasise the separation of figures from the landscape through which they move, the harsh contrasts between dark and light, and the seemingly uncrossable distances between people. It is the sort of film where the viewer really "sees" every edit and almost registers it physically, because the cuts relentlessly inscribe the divisions between everyone and everything.

The Proposition can seem a brutal film, but its violence is neither prolonged nor especially graphic. Eschewing slow-motion and other "aestheticising" devices, Hillcoat and Cave focus firmly on the morality of violence, its causes and consequences. Hillcoat has not made one of those films that decry the futility of violence while wallowing in it as spectacle. The closest comparison, on this plane, would be Abel Ferrara's The Funeral (1996) – another ferociously logical film in which an act of violence, paradoxically, closes the cycle of violence.

Although the film gathers many different sorts of actors from several countries, the ensemble effect is superbly coherent. Pearce, Winstone, Watson and John Hurt are all terrific, but the revelation is Huston (used so differently in Birth [2004]). Long before we see Arthur in the flesh, we hear him described as a dog or a spirit, and we glimpse him in Charlie's tormented dreams (in an image that finally turns out to be flashforward). Huston conveys the tragic, spooky grandeur of this larger-than-life character.

The Proposition is not without its flaws. David Wenham's irritating affectation of a high-pitched, over-cultivated voice hits one of the few bum notes in the ensemble. And it is possible to conclude that the story's treatment of indigenous culture and history is a little swift and secondary, more a pretext than a true, central theme. The presence of David Gulpilil as (once again) a tracker inevitably raises the comparison with the more rigorous treatment of a similar subject in Rolf de Heer's The Tracker (2002).

But The Proposition, in many respects, goes beyond anything we have previously seen in Australian cinema. It offers the event of something rarely witnessed here: the perfect, confident marriage of story to style, of content to form. Let us hope that John Hillcoat's next project breaks the infernal "one film per decade" cycle that he, and we, have had to endure so far.

© Adrian Martin October 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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