How the West Was Lost
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The 19th-century Australian outback, populated by settlers, natives, and gangs of lawless men, provides Australia with a good deal of its national mythology. It was where famous outlaws such as Ned Kelly fought pitched battles against lawmen in frontier towns and hid out in the wilderness; where the sheep-stealing swagman – a sort of down under hobo – of the folk song “Waltzing Matilda” drowns himself in a river rather than surrender to the police. It is promising territory for a Western movie.
“The Proposition,” opening today at Angelika Film Center and the AMC Empire 25, fails to live up to this promise. It is like an Australian version of “The Unforgiven,” but where Clint Eastwood’s celebrated film presents violent retribution as morally complex – devastatingly corrupting and nonetheless at times a moral necessity – the violence in “The Proposition” operates on a much simpler plane. Brutality begets brutality, death yields death, and right from the start it seems nearly everyone in the film is unredeemable.
The film begins shortly after the brutal massacre of a frontier family by a gang led by three Burns brothers – Arthur (Danny Huston), Charlie (Guy Pearce), and Mikey (Richard Wilson). Following a deadly shootout with the police, Charlie and Mikey are arrested, but Arthur, the oldest and most murderous of the gang, remains at large. The captain of the police (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a proposition – track down and kill Arthur by Christmas Day and he and his brother Mikey will not be hanged.
With the promise of his younger brother’s demise looming in his thoughts, Charlie sets off after Arthur into the sun-scorched outback, a beautifully bleak wasteland sparsely populated by rogues and eccentrics. In one of the film’s few light moments, the landscape’s obduracy is momentarily forgotten when Charlie encounters a drunken, Darwin quoting bounty-hunter turned barkeep (John Hurt).
When Arthur finally appears, it is in the form of a bearish man quoting poetry and living in an impenetrable wilderness redoubt. He is every bit as awe-inspiringly terrible as promised, never hesitating as he butchers or stomps men to death. “Love is the key. Love and family,” Arthur says to Charlie one night after murdering two men. Charlie is weary of his brother’s ways but shares this moral code of family loyalty. The beautifully shot scenes of the two brothers sitting beside each other as the sun sets sparkle with the tension of their brotherly bond cracking.
The film moves between Charlie’s journey through the wilderness and events back in the frontier town where Mikey is held prisoner. The settlers react with outrage when they learn of the deal the police captain made with the outlaws. The child-like Mikey is brutally flogged and nearly killed, a fate narrowly avoided when the man yielding the blood-soaked whip grows tired.The captain’s proposition looks almost like an act of mercy in light of this torture. This civilization is founded on brutal actions no less bloody than the criminality it seeks to overcome. Just in case we miss this point, the police captain twice reminds us that it is his duty to “civilize” this territory.
I suppose it is fair enough if the filmmakers – writer Nick Cave, better known as the lead singer of the Bad Seeds, and director John Hillcoat – want to press home a point about the meaninglessness of life and the viciousness underlying civilization. But the lesson from places as diverse as Iraq and New Orleans is that even if violence is necessary to create or restore civilization out of chaos, the former is incomparably preferable to the latter.