Nick Cave’s The Proposition blends equal parts Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout and Sergio Leone’s grim atmospherics to illustrate the brutality of imperialism. Set during the Bushranger period of colonial Australia, the film dramatizes the cycle of violence set in motion by European expansion from several different perspectives, all embedded in a brutal struggle for control of the land.
While bloodshed and moral ambiguity are nothing new to the Western genre, in The Proposition every element, from the smallest role to the tiniest snippet of music (the score by Warren Ellis and Cave ranges from whispery to bombastic), highlights their effects. Nine days before Christmas, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers the titular “proposition” to the outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce). He is to murder his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) as retribution for the slaughter of a “good Christian family,” in order to save his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) from the noose. What follows is a complicated morality play. Charlie’s trek to find his brother is not unlike Marlow’s journey in Heart of Darkness, as Arthur, like Kurtz, is insane, calculating, and charismatic.
Stanley’s efforts to bring the Burns gang to justice, to “civilize the land,” reflect his own incongruities, as he vacillates between acting as an English gentleman with his wife Martha (Emily Watson) and as a brutal instrument of European oppression on the job. His deal with Charlie means a wanted man goes free, and soon, Stanley is trapped between the will of his superiors and his own conscience, all the while trying to protect and please his wife, who is neither subservient nor outspoken. Watson finds a balance between obedience and willfulness that conveys Martha’s own colonialist experience. She observes Stanley grappling with his decisions. And soon, his coughing and shaking become so pronounced that he is difficult to watch, as he disintegrates into a powerless, nervous wreck.
Charlie’s journey is no less harrowing. His journey leads him to surreal encounters with a deranged bounty hunter (John Hurt) and soon after, brother Arthur. His body ravaged from starvation and worry, Charlie suffers a nearly fatal attack by an Aboriginal spear, and is then saved by Arthur’s gang. They hatch a plan to spring Mikey from Stanley’s military jail.
The several plot strands of The Proposition culminate on Christmas Day. Observing traditional pieties and pretending the horrors around her might be held at bay, Martha prepares an elaborate holiday feast, complete with a decorated tree, only to have the cultivated stillness destroyed by the arrival of Arthur Burns and his gang. This vicious assault reveals the void in Stanley’s assertion that he means to “bring civilization,” exposing its predication on hierarchy and oppression.
Perhaps the most afflicted by this civilization are the indigenous Australians, even as they seem peripheral to the white men’s plotting. While some rebel and retreat to the desert, and some work with the English to quell native rebellion, still others forge relationships with outlaws like Arthur Burns. Their variety of responses to the incursion into their land alludes to the notorious history of the period, when the choice between resistance to and cooperation with colonial powers offered little difference in outcome.
At the German premier, director John Hillcoat explained that many of the indigenous actors and employees faced the opposition of other indigenous people for working on the film because of strict taboos regarding the representation of the dead. The Aboriginal actors’ input, Hillcoat said, was essential in making the story both timely and believable. With their help, Hillcoat and Cave have forged a vision of colonial violence that serves as a timeless anti-violence parable.