Thursday, August 23, 2012

Cinema 2005: A Brutal Look at Nation Building

"Proposition" unfolds with the rigor of a traditional dirge, and yet it manages to enfold its audience uncannily in a story that takes place faraway (for Americans) and many generations ago.

Part "Unforgiven," part "Apocalypse Now," “Proposition,” by John Hillcoat, is set in the Australian frontier around the mid-19th century. In this frontier settlement, white men struggle to scratch a living from a harsh land, while striving to "civilize" the dark-skinned aborigines, whom they don't yet quite recognize as their brothers.

“We are white men, not beasts,” one character exhorts a colleague. The white man has also brought an army to enforce his laws in settlements which evolved out of penal colonies in the semi-arid landscape, where “God has evaporated.”

One of the men charged with enforcing the law, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), decides to play one outlaw against the outlaw’s more dangerous brother (the proposition of the title), and Hillcoat’s film is set in motion. The proposition made to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is simple and cruel: kill your murderous brother Arthur (Danny Huston) in order to save your younger, weaker one. The proposition is not so much the plot as the philosophical core of the movie, written by Nick Cave, otherwise known as the frontman for the internationally renowned band “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,” and who composed the movie’s haunting, original score.

The movie provides stunning visuals of a vast Australian landscape that abides in mute witness to the ephemeral struggles of humans, who face long odds, whether cultivating roses or murdering their own kind. Charlie appears to accept fratricide and rides off in search of his brother. Along the way, Charlie encounters an erudite bounty hunter (John Hurt), who mocks the world and all man's endeavors; his vast experience and chosen profession have taught him cynicism, what else?

As Charlie continues his quest, he is attacked and wounded by aborigines. His life is saved by his brother Arthur, whose gang nurses Charlie back to health. The near-death experience is common in film. Convalescence provides the man of action the time and inkling to meditate on his situation, an otherwise unlikely behavior. Here it also piles an additional moral dilemma upon Charlie, who would now have to kill the man who saved his life.

In the meantime, the forces of civilization, driven by lofty ambitions and baser instincts, throw another monkey wrench into Stanley's plan, and his crafty plotting to advance the cause of justice threatens to come unraveled at the covetous hands of his venal comrades.

The captain’s wife, Martha (Emily Watson), stands at her white picket fence, surrounded by a barren wilderness that taunts human existence, let alone civilization. Her husband has created this rough estate to protect her, since even the town where he is garrisoned is too demoralizing.

Martha is in many ways a prisoner in a dream world of rose gardens and bone china. Her isolation from the primitive day-to-day life is symbolized by her white skin, always protected from the sun. But Martha asserts herself, as she pushes against the boundaries her husband has set, and tries to understand the unsentimental truth of her situation and surroundings. Driven by dreams and her own independent spirit, she dares to defy her husband in her own quest to learn the truth.

Martha is sickened by what she learns and sees, and retreats into the trappings of tradition, preparing a fancy Christmas dinner for her world-weary husband. The fine table and many upper class accoutrements of the Stanley household not only seem out of place in that cruel land, they also prove to be an insult to the tooth and nail local culture. The Christmas dinner scene is a testimony to man’s striving to tame the wilderness around him and within his own breast, while at the same time it is a tenuous monument to the transitory nature of man’s achievements. We simply cannot believe this couple will be allowed to enjoy a blessed Christmas meal in peace. They have tried to tame a wild land, but it has become clear they are woefully overextended.

What happens next may not surprise, but the movie does beg the question whether the Stanleys’ experiences to that point have informed and fortified them enough to deal with and withstand the cruel violence that still defines that human outpost. Who survives? That is a tough call in a place where Death has not yet been tamed. But if the captain's instincts were right, if indeed a changing of the guard is under way, then maybe there is hope for civilization.

When Charles is finally forced by events to make his choice between frontier violence and the incipient rule of law, his actions undoubtedly shock the Stanleys more than they do his own brother, who nonetheless believes himself deserving of mercy, at least the fraternal kind. Finally, it is Arthur who gives us one of cinema’s more poignant questions, despite its apparent simplicity: “What are you gonna do now, Charlie?

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