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The Proposition (film essay)

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 9:00 AM

The Proposition (Hillcoat 2005) is bleak, brutal depiction of Australia’s colonial history, which challenges the romanticism of the bushranger legend. The film presents ideas of heroism, villainy and innocence with a degree of ambiguity (Stadler 68). This moral vagueness is manifested through the characters of the film.


The protagonists struggle to do right, but are tortured and oppressed by the forces of man and nature; meanwhile, the truly despicable characters are presented with such an air of charisma and eloquence that they have the ability to seduce and engage the audience in ways the hero’s cannot. Innocence is presented as the rarest and most fragile trait, and through the course of the film, the characters who do possess it are brutally robbed of it by the law and chaos of their environment.

 

In presenting itself as a Western, The Proposition introduces several character archetypes, common within the genre. These include the zealous lawman, his naive wife, the corrupt mayor, the resentful natives, and the outlaw brothers. However, titles such as “hero” and “villain” are more difficult to place. Many of the characters display an appetite for both order and violence. Even the seemingly passive settler community are brought together by their desire to see criminals humiliated or tortured. The closest the film gets to a hero, is Captain Stanley and Charlie Burns, who, while both capable of great brutality, struggle to maintain a code of honour. Arthur Burns, on the other hand, symbolises excessive cruelty, and yet his monstrous soul is masked by an easy laugh and a poetic tongue, that make him easy to like. Arthur is charismatic, and this makes his acts of violence so much more disturbing, having seen the tender way he deals with his brothers.

 

Whether they be cop, criminal, settler, or Aborigine, the one thing that these characters share is the harsh environment which they inhabit. The sun-baked, unforgiving Australian desert can be seen as trigger for much of the hostility fleshed out by the film. The environment acts as a sort-of pressure cooker, pitting already antagonistic individuals against one another, in an escalating clash of cultural violence. In the scene with Captain Stanley and the captured Aborigines, the black native populace seem to imply that the empty, isolated ranges have had a transformative effect on the Burns clan, turning them into howling beasts. Similarly, the hot, arid climate serves to burden the soldiers and townsfolk, transforming them into heartless, angry people. The land is vast and majestic, and yet, far from being a wondrous horizon, ripe for adventure, it feels claustrophobic and almost existential in its emptiness.

 

The bushranger archetype is tied to a mythologising of Australian history, but in The Proposition, the Burn’s Gang—a band of Irish outlaws who undoubtedly invite comparison with the famous Kelly gang—are depicted as desperate, violent and cruel. Like the revisionist Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, the film is challenging the romanticisation of colonial history. Previous incarnations of the “Australian frontier” were attempting to establish white man as the dominant and authoritative presence of the environment, whereas in this film, the Australian landscape is depicted as being utterly empty and devoid of human influence.

 

Captain Stanley, the man given the task of “taming” the land, assumes that it is empty, and that the Aborigines are hiding or squatting in the ranges. In truth, however, they have always lived there, and calling them “rebels” is simply an attempt for white Australia to wash away its guilt. The conflict here is not so much between cowboy and Indian, or in this case colonist and native, but rather between man and nature. Not just the natural environment, but rather man’s intrinsic desire to dominate, oppress and hurt others.

 

The concept of Aboriginal resistance and subjugation provides an interesting insight into the genre archetypes. Unlike the Indian’s of American Westerns, Australian Aborigines have rarely been presented as fighting back against the British colonisers. Here we are informed that the blacks in the area are maintaining rebellion against the crown. What caused it specifically is never really elaborated on, but the depiction of Aboriginal people in the film provides a unique look into the complex tribal and family loyalties.

 

One Aborigine, named Jacko, is working with Captain Stanley and the police, while another, named Two Bob, is a member of the Burns gang. There is also Stanley’s black hired-hand, Toby, who is cordial enough in the Captain’s presence, but as soon as he reaches the gate of the homestead, he takes off his shoes. Perhaps it could be seen as a silent, non-confrontational protest; symbolically removing the constraints of white oppression, before returning to his native soil. While Two Bob himself never exhibits any interest in fighting alongside his kin in rebellion, he does express disgust towards Jacko, calling him a “traitorous dog” for aiding the Captain, and slitting his throat.

 

The ultimate statement of injustice demonstrated by the film is the Aboriginal massacre that occurs part way through the film. We hear gunshots in the distance, the camera looms overs a field of dead women and children, before cutting back to the police, laughing and drinking. The callousness with which these Indigenous people are slaughtering, many of them women, contrasts with the intense reverence afforded to the Hopkins estate, with its neat white tomb stones out the back. When Charlie enters the site of the outrage, he removes his hat as a sign of respect. The dead Indigenous “rebels”, however, are afforded no such dignity.

 

The characters depicted in the reality of the film are not expected to decide what is right or wrong. They are expected to conform to the institution or orders they serve. Captain Stanley is told to do his job and “civilise this land”, while the members of the Burn’s gang are expected to place personal morality aside in favour of what benefits the gang, and to obey Arthur as the head of their family. There are certainly class and ethnic divisions that fuel the conflict. The Irish gang are warring with the British cops. The black natives are rebelling against the white settlers (or invaders). But there are also blacks fighting blacks, such as Two Bob slaying the tracker for “betraying his people”. And even within these institutions there are voices of dissent. Athur and Charlie represent the to and fro being fought over the moral soul of their gang. And Captain Stanley goes against his superiors (by releasing Charlie) in the pursuit of what he sees as the greater good.

 

More so than race or nation, the theme of family runs throughout the course of the film; a sense of tribal unity and disunity being played out in vast expressions of cultural violence. Indeed, the whole catalyst for Stanley’s titular proposition is the brutal murder of a white settler family. The implied rape of Emily Hopkins is made all the more tragic by the fact that she was pregnant during the attack. And the knowledge of this act haunts Stanley’s wife, one of the two innocent characters in the film. Martha, herself infertile, describes seeing the unborn child in a dream. She sees the baby as a ghost clutching at her hand, a symbol of untouched innocence that Martha herself will never possess again. Not so much because she cannot conceive, but rather, because of her decision to goad and observe the flogging of Mikey Burns, the films other innocent character. Like the other settlers in the town, they feel that the whipping of Mikey will avenge the innocent Hopkins, as well as absolve Mikey of his sins. Instead, it only damages their own souls, as the myth of redemptive violence is once again perpetuated by those wishing to live morally in what is an amoral world.

 

Family is also observed within the Burn’s gang, composed of three brothers, and several other social outcasts. We witness in their interactions a gentle, fatherly concern expressed by Arthur Burns, as he seeks to mentor and protect the members of his group. Arthur and Charlie are united by their love of Mikey, but that unity is also strained by their own moral code. Charlie believes Arthur has become too violent and cruel, seemingly carrying out acts of evil for its own sake. And yet he is bound by blood to love and serve him as his younger brother. We see both hatred and tenderness in their interactions, and it is this moral struggle that frames the climax of the film. It is interesting to note that while some of the Burn’s gang are bound by blood, others are merely friends (two of them being Aboriginal). It is a family formed as much in opposition to the authority, as in common heritage. We see a kind of convict unity that speaks to the earliest white settlers of the country. Likewise, the police figures can be seen as the spiritual descendants of the gaolers and guards who housed the first convicts. Once again, the violent struggle in the film stems from an ancestral conflict, as well a cultural one (in the form of Irish and British hostility).

 

Ideas of family and landscape governing morality are also manifested through the European-style homestead kept by Stanley and Martha. The couple are part of a British ancestry that endeavour to cultivate a little patch of England on their far side of the world; in a sense, a microcosm of British colonialism. Beneath the scorching sun, and within the harsh desert, Martha has made a perfect English cottage, surrounded by roses. Inside the house is a picture of the Queen, a snow covered Christmas tree, and a lavish dining table, where the couple sit and drink cups of tea. The home is a symbol of their yearning for home, and provides a stark contrast to the empty, lifeless and wild Australian outback beyond their fence-line. However, as the film draws to its grisly conclusion, the house becomes a garrison, complete with boarded windows and murder hole for Stanley to spy any approaching enemies. It is as if the Australian landscape, like the Aborigines, is hostile towards this little patch of England, and seeks to consume and destroy it.

 

Finally, as the Burn’s gang arrive for the brutal reprisal of Captain Stanley, the homestead becomes a place of violence and suffering, reminiscent of the ruined and ravaged Hopkins estate, at the beginning of the film. The outlaws beat Stanley, and begin to rape his wife. At last Charlie arrives, and in a single act of defiance, he shoots Arthur in the gut. He has had enough, and Arthur has crossed a moral line that no family loyalty can withstand. In this sense, the film does offer some hope that humans possess a moral instinct that can rise above institutional control or cultural loyalty. But on the other hand, it continues to perpetrate the myth of redemptive violence that we observe in the townsfolk who watch Mikey flogged. In their minds violence will solve violence; that revenge is somehow a substitute for justice, when unfortunately all it is that they are feeding is their own savage instincts. In the final scene of the film the audience is exposed to an achingly beautiful sunset, and the silhouettes of these two brothers, finally at peace in their parting. The blood that runs across Martha’s rose garden represents the withering of her English garden in the face of Australia’s broader cultural violence.

 

The Proposition is a complex and layered film, which refuses to easily categorise its central characters. It depicts people as a mix of good and bad, capable of great empathy and great cruelty. The harsh Australian environment, and the cultural heritage and tribal feuds also add to the conflict between the characters in the film. The saddest notion of the film is that even when Charlie does fulfil the proposition, killing Arthur and ending the Burns gang once and for all, it comes through violence. The Proposition is a bleak film, which speaks to the darker side of people, and whatever hope for peace it offers, comes at the cost of our soul.

 

Categories: ESSAYS, Cinema

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