Flies buzz incessantly in The Proposition, a grim, gory Western set in the Australian outback around 1880. They buzz over corpses, over desiccated soil, and over any hope of survival. They signal death and dryness, of course, and the flies also mark transitions from one location to another: everywhere, it seems, someone is dead or dying.
With all this buzzing in the background, the British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) has his work cut out for him. Declaring that he means “to civilize this land,” he first appears in mid-effort, as he and his deputies rampage a house where two Irish brothers, Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson), are holed up. Wanted for the killing of a “good Christian family,” and especially, the pre-murder rape of a pregnant member of that family, the brothers are soon taken prisoner and tied to their chairs, as the good Captain sets about interrogating them. He wants their older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston, who is excellent), leader of the notorious Burns gang.
Several bodies lean broken and bloodied against the hideout’s walls, as dull sunlight filters through dozens of bullet holes. Stanley peers at his captives, then walks to a window. Looking out, he ponders, “What fresh hell is this?”, which might refer equally to the carnage behind him, the desertscape before him, or the roiling forces within him. For in order to bring order, he knows now, post-massacre, that he must become his opponent. The means to and end of civilization are both violence, whether vile or sly.
Having tasted the vile part, Stanley wrangles what he sees as a sly bargain with Charlie. Arthur—whom Stanley calls “a monster, an abomination”—remains at large, as Charlie, apparently appalled by the gang’s latest atrocity, took young, slow-witted Mikey and left the gang. Stanley offers this impossible deal: if Charlie kills Arthur, the captain will spare Mikey, as of now scheduled to be hanged in nine days, on Christmas. It’s a terrible arrangement, everyone knows it, based on distrust and contempt.
It’s not like Stanley has come up with such an idea of “civilization” on his own. As much as he resembles his sweaty prisoners and filthy, low-thinking deputies, Stanley is plainly a product of his officially sanctioned background, embodied most plainly by his wife Martha (Emily Watson). For the most part, she keeps to the nice white house they’ve got on the edge of town, where she’s surrounded with remnants of a life they had before: china plates, heavy draperies, polished chairs. But just after Stanley returns to the jailhouse, Mikey in tow, she shows up, demanding attention, complaining of loneliness and boredom: she’s been waiting for three days, after all.
When she judges the prisoner to be “no more than a boy,” that is, undeserving of the obvious beating he’s received, Stanley sends her away, to protect her but also to maintain his own sense of order, the woman who waits for him at home, safe and unbearably sensual. But not before Sergeant Lawrence (Robert Morgan) declares Mikey “man enough.” Startled into contemplating what this assessment means—what it suggests about her husband’s judgment, daily activities, and means to get to his ends—Martha blanches. Stanley sends her off, still trying to keep his two worlds separate, even as you see they are the same. And when she’s gone, Stanley sets parameters with the sergeant: “What happens in the flats is between you and me,” he asserts. “Because if it were to become known, there would be consequences.”
Indeed. Stanley feels this threat especially from his twitty superior, Fletcher (David Wenham), who rides into town wearing an expensive suit and decrees punishments knowing he’ll have nothing to do with their execution. As Fletcher dispenses consequences, he doesn’t have to deal with them, leaving that physical and moral mess to his underlings. Stanley, living somewhere in the middle, executes consequences and also suffers them. And so, as soon as Stanley learns Fletcher wants to have Mikey flogged in public, he perceives that the cycle of retribution will only go on. Abusing the boy, who barely comprehends his imprisonment, will gratify spectators, perhaps, but will also, more significantly, enrage Mikey’s protectors, who are not so far off as they might seem.
That Martha becomes an eager party to the cycle (at least initially declaring that her friendship with the rape victim grants her a say in the aggressor’s fate, as well as a desire to see him whipped) emphasizes its insidious endlessness. And her participation (in the decision as well as its execution) reframes this set of masculine genre clichés, so that the film offers, if not “fresh hell,” at least a rethinking of the sources of community cruelty and individual arrogance, the fears and ignorance that make them seem rational responses. While Martha plays the role usually ascribed to women in Westerns (the emblem of domestic law), she suffers horribly for doing so. She is also the sign of Stanley’s excessive ambition and awareness of his failure.
Charlie’s sense of consequences is more skewed than Stanley’s but just as acute. He knows that Arthur, who essentially incarnates the cycle, is unkillable. His route to Arthur’s cave in the hills (where he’s rumored among local aborigines to be transformed into a “dog,” literally) takes him through the bounty hunter Lamb (John Hurt), whose reading of Darwin’s proposal that “at bottom,” white men and aborigines are “one and the same,” enrages him. Full of self-hate on top of his abject loathing for “others” (including aborigines, Irishmen, and criminals), Lamb seeks Arthur too, for the money and the sport.
While Charlie’s aim (to save Mikey) might appear to be less objectionable than Lamb’s, the film’s circuitous, implacable series of events—less a plot than an accumulation of horrors—suggests that intention is, at last, irrelevant. Like Fletcher and Martha’s desire to see Mikey bloodied for his crime, Arthur’s craving for vengeance and Stanley’s for security are naïve but also relentless, cultural values that only undermine culture.