Home / Movie Review: John Hillcoat’s The Proposition: The Frontier

Movie Review: John Hillcoat’s The Proposition: The Frontier

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Perhaps because of the simplicity of the life depicted, movies about conflicts in modern frontier societies — what may generally be called "westerns" — have been hospitable to the simplest narrative structures, chivalric romance and melodrama. The problem is that the contrast of the rustic setting and the high artificiality of literary romance and theatrical melodrama creates a kitsch effect. For decades no category of American movies was more popular, or more predictable.

At the same time, the material reaches towards more suggestive handling. The warriors' feats of horse- and gunmanship, for instance, have a legendary aura that suggest heroic sagas, though ones being sung in the age of history-writing and photography. And to the extent that the story of the frontier is the story of a people spreading into new territory and bringing their way of life with them, westerns have a sense of epic as well. But this potential richness has only set fastidious moviegoers up for repeated disappointments.

Even among the most accomplished westerns, John Hillcoat's The Proposition, from a script by Australian rocker Nick Cave, is still something special, having both the direct muscularity of a ballad and the attentiveness to social detail of a novel. As much as any western I can think of, it believably recreates the rough, struggling society of an outpost cowtown — materially, emotionally, and morally.

In the barely settled Australia of the 1880s, the Burns brothers, three roughshod, boggy Irish bushrangers, have been terrorizing outlying homesteaders. Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) have broken off from the eldest, the primordially brutal Arthur (Danny Huston) and his confederates, who have recently murdered a settler and raped and murdered his pregnant wife. The movie begins in media res as Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), head of the local garrison, captures Charlie and Mike in a chaotic gunfight. Stanley then makes the proposition of the title: Mike will be hanged on Christmas day within the week unless Charlie tracks Arthur down in his mountain hideout and kills him. If Charlie does so, both he and Mike will be pardoned.

At first the proposition may strike you as barbaric. (Not to mention a miscalculation to the extent that primitive Irishmen are as little likely as any humans to kill their own brothers, especially as part of a bargain with an officer of the English crown; and in fact Charlie ends up riding back to town with Arthur to release Mike.) Seen another way, however, the proposition is a relatively modern and efficient approach to the problem. It's an executory plea deal, in essence—albeit an unorthodox and improper one, since Mike, sitting in jail, has no control over whether "his" end of the bargain will be kept. But it shrewdly puts Charlie at risk rather than Stanley's own men tracking the psychotic Arthur into the inhospitable wastes of the outback. Charlie, after all, knows his brother's ways better than the soldiers do, and if he's killed it will be at the hands of someone with whom he's collaborated in crime.

As modern as Stanley's approach may seem, however, it appears considerably less sensible when we see how the rest of the town responds to it. His own men, a hard-drinking, crusty lot, think it's a sign of Stanley's weakness. They gossip about him, and his comely young wife, and word of the deal leaks to the townspeople, who are disgusted that men they believe to have butchered several of their own may escape punishment. And when Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), Stanley's superior officer, gets wind of it, he insists that Mike be publicly flogged, though it must inevitably appear to Charlie that Stanley welshed on the deal and will thus put Stanley and his wife at risk of what Arthur did to the other couple.

Like George Stevens's Shane (1953), The Proposition dramatizes the violence paradoxically necessary to civilize the frontier. Shane, however, is told with deliberate artifice as a black hat/white hat allegory, and there's never any examination of what "civilization" entails. The characters are arrayed with Jack Palance, the cattle baron's evil gunslinger, at the dark end of the spectrum and at the light end both Van Heflin, the decent farmer incapable of adequate martial self-defense, and Alan Ladd, the avenging, unreal, white knight. (Not to mention improbable, considering Ladd's dissipated-playboy face. The casting of Ladd as Shane is comparable to casting Tony Bennett as Lohengrin.) Shane attempts to make a storybook virtue of the average western's moral schematism, and I believe some people enjoy it for that very reason: they see "classical" where I see stilted.

In The Proposition, by contrast, Arthur squats at the dark end (and Huston, playing the part with both comic brashness and a sense of hauntedness, makes him a moody, Celtic goblin), but there's no one at the opposite end. Rather, the characters are arrayed on a curve so that Fletcher, the highest representative of law, is uncomfortably close to Arthur, and the greatest interest is in the middle, where we find Stanley and his wife, emerging from the barbarism of their surroundings and their own urgings. As Cave has conceived the story, the frontier is internal as well as external.

The proposition is the premise of the movie, its hook, but not its focus, and if, like me, you see the picture because you'll see anything with Guy Pearce in it, you may be somewhat disappointed. It's not a Guy Pearce movie, but that isn't a bad thing here. Unusually for a western, the most intriguing character is a woman, Captain Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), who, with her delicate tea service and imported Christmas ornaments, her upright posture under her parasol, suggests the attempt to impose civil order on unruly nature (i.e., a setting where the characters "probably shouldn't be," according to Cave).

Stanley is the kind of enforcement officer who believes he's taming the frontier so it will be safe for women and children, but that women should not even know what forces threaten them. Martha, however, very much wants to know what happened to her friend at the hands of the Burns gang, especially when the butcher's wife tells her to ask her husband why the townspeople are looking at her askance. Finally Martha positions herself to overhear the truth her husband has refused to impart to her. When a mob gathers outside the prison to demand Mike's flogging, Martha lends her voice to the call for corporal "justice." Stanley has to step aside and let Mike be brought out for his 100 lashes; by the 39th bloody stroke Martha has fainted, and shortly afterwards the townspeople, nauseated by the sight they've demanded, disperse.

With Stanley you see a rough-hewn but basically decent man reaching for a new solution to the eternal problem of antisocial maleness. (Note that he's decent in his terms, not ours. His attitude toward the aboriginal population has not been made palatable to us in an anachronistic way; he is believably the kind of man he would have been given the time and place.) In his dealings with the Burns brothers, you see competing forms of aggressive masculinity, those that threaten and those that defend civilization.

Meanwhile Martha, the woman who has always been sheltered as a necessary component of being considered "decent," is exposed, as if for the first time in human history, to the facts of how men maintain the social order that protects women from outrages like that suffered by her friend. But ignorance has not made Martha more sensitive. She doesn't inherently, allegorically represent civilization, as the sheriff's woman often does in westerns, trying to hold him back from doing what a man has to do (i.e., kill the bad guys) and that the audience is slavering for. Martha goes to the jail, like everyone else, to call for Mike to be whipped. But it's as if she went there crying for vengeance and returned home with the stirrings of a moral philosopher.

There's more narrative pull than that might suggest, however. Martha's anxious curiosity about her friend's fate has a fairy tale quality, something like the story of Bluebeard's wife. We know Martha will move even closer to this fate than words or imagination before the end of the movie, and with her huge, luminous eyes in her piquant pug's face, Watson makes Martha seem the victim of a dark enchantment (which is how some women feel about sexual violence, the Angela Carter of The Bloody Chamber, for instance) without making her seem like anything but a young frontier matron. There's a beautiful, rapt moment in which Martha, sitting in the tub and seen from behind, tells the Captain of a dream she had of the murdered child. Watson's hands are as expressive here as her eyes are throughout.

At the same time, Martha's developing attentiveness to the situation echoes ours, and she gives the story its grounding in the qualities of the novel. (The advance of modern society seems also to entail a transition from ballad, heroic saga, and epic to descriptive naturalism. The one major failing in this regard is Stanley's unpreparedness for Arthur's final attack.) Stanley's job thus isn't set solely in the polarized moral context of melodrama. It's seen politically as well by showing that the proposition fails, in the first instance, because Stanley commands insufficient respect among his men, and then because he has inadequate support from his superior officer.

This view is rounded out by the social context — how word of the proposition affects Martha with the townsfolk and how it infects the Stanleys' personal relationship. Martha starts out wide-eyed, i.e., "innocent" (though not incapable of inflicting harm, as the etymology suggests), and what she undergoes opens them wider, though in a different sense. It also serves as a bonding experience with her husband, as if, by the end, she can finally understand what he's been up against and where he's been coming from.

The Proposition also has a sweated-in novelistic sense of place. Shot during a sweltering Queensland summer, the overdressed, underwashed Victorian colonials are swarmed by flies. In the interview above, Cave said of the shoot, "Nobody could even open their mouth without a fly crawling into it," and Hillcoat added, "[W]e were sharing the secrets of how to cope with swallowing flies…I kept saying 'flies are our friends,' trying to encourage them to be part of the story. Which they ended up being."

The movie does not, however, have the visionary quality of the most staggering westerns, Fred Schepisi's The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978) from Australia and Geoff Murphy's Utu (1983) from New Zealand, for instance, in which the romance of the outlaw is inflected with an epic-tragic sense that history is being irreparably blotted in the meeting of the pioneer and aboriginal cultures. Sam Peckinpah in the U.S. wasn't able to condense an historical outlook in a turbulent anecdote in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) to equal these movies (Pat Garrett's complex ambitions die along with the helpless, pathetic Mexican at the hands of the evil cattle baron's men), but in The Wild Bunch (1969) he certainly rode the romance of western masculinity to the end of the line.

There is, however, some sense of the tragic side of Australia's history in The Proposition when, for instance, Fletcher upbraids Stanley for having killed a black during a recent raid. He's upset because Stanley killed only the one and now the survivors will seek revenge; it would have been better to kill them all. And when Stanley, preparing for the attack by the Burns brothers, sends his native gardener away, the man stops at the gate and removes his European shoes before walking out into the wasteland. It's a lovely, poetic gesture delivered on the ambiguous borderline between the two cultures.

But these moments aren't central to the narrative. On the other hand, tragic exaltation verges on the hysterical, on the willfully florid and perverse, and The Proposition is none of these. Cave and Hillcoat see history as a process, the product of sallies that can't be perfectly judged beforehand. A decent attempt is not negligible because it miscarries. The emphasis is as much on Stanley's effort as he conceived of it, as on the baleful results.

The Proposition is perhaps most like Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962), which so methodically dispels the melodramatic view of frontiersmen on a collision course. Similarly, The Proposition depicts male brutality, both within and without the confines of the law, in a beautifully measured way that doesn't kill the intensity of the narrative — wild contrasts, ironic similarities, and all.

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