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Australian Western: Fear on the frontier

Dan Edwards considers The Proposition

David Gulpilil, Ray Winstone, The Proposition David Gulpilil, Ray Winstone, The Proposition
The child’s song over the opening credits is cut off by the sharp ‘thwack’ of a bullet piercing a metal wall. Immediately we feel the sweat-laden fear of those in a shed being riddled by gunfire. Women wail and men scream as patches of flesh explode in red. Tiny circles of white appear in the walls as bullets penetrate and admit the outside glare. The soundtrack is a terrifying percussive montage of ricochets and bullets striking like raindrops on tin. Welcome to The Proposition.

Occasionally, Australia produces a genre work that manages to perfectly crystallise the messy crosscurrents of thoughts, feelings and fears circulating at the time of the film’s production. It’s as if genre templates sometimes free our writers and directors from the weight of issues bound up with questions of ‘Australian identity’ and a national cinema, allowing these films to unselfconsciously express aspects of our national psyche in a way that so much of our cinema strives for but rarely manages to achieve. To cite 2 in a long list of examples: the Rebel Without a Cause-style Head On (1998) encapsulated the frustrations and pressures felt by a generation of urban Australians growing up in a country of increasing social freedoms but ever-diminishing opportunities in the early to mid-90s, while the courtroom drama Breaker Morant (1979) was a powerful expression of 1970s Australian nationalism and anti-British sentiment. Surprisingly, we’ve had difficulty with the Western, a genre seemingly ready-made for Australia. Perhaps its obvious historical relevance has provoked the old crippling self-consciousness about Australian identity. With The Proposition, director John Hillcoat and scriptwriter Nick Cave have created not only a great Western but pulled off the difficult feat of constructing a genre tale that explores what we were and what we are without ever feeling forced or clichéd.

The Proposition owes a clear debt to both Sergio Leone and the revisionist American Westerns of the late 1960s and early 70s. From Leone comes a fascination with close-ups of battered, lined faces, and an intense focus on a landscape so barren and inhospitable it takes on a kind of alien, hallucinogenic beauty. In its occasionally mournful air and sympathy for brutalised people in a bleak environment, it also resembles Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). From US director Sam Peckinpah comes the sudden, visceral violence, while the common moral code and outsider status of The Proposition’s hunter and hunted echoes the fractured brotherly bond at the centre of Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Hillcoat is no postmodern collector of empty visual and thematic tropes however. The Proposition doesn’t just pay homage to its genre precursors; it absorbs them, along with well-worn Australian myths and legends, into a wholly contemporary fable.

The opening credits sketch the film’s approach. We see a series of what appear to be 19th century photographs depicting the harsh life of the Australian frontier: white men with creased, filthy faces, and Aboriginal men either strung together with chains or posing uncomfortably in Western dress alongside their colonial masters. After a time it becomes apparent that the film’s actors are in some of these, making it impossible to tell which, if any, of the images are ‘genuine’, and which are re-creations drawing on the visual vernacular of historical photographs. The Proposition doesn’t purport to be a re-telling of history, but rather a film with one foot in a hazy historical past and another in the signifiers we have used to understand and relate that past to ourselves and to others. It is in the interrogation of these signifiers that the work comes closest to the strategies of the revisionist American Westerns.

Following the opening shoot out, the film’s premise is quickly established. Policeman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers captured Irish bushranger Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) a proposition; the Captain will free Charlie and his simpleton brother if Charlie hunts down and kills their psychopathic older sibling, Arthur. The scene establishes what initially appears to be a well-made but conventional ‘honest outlaw faces off against corrupt policeman’ story, but The Proposition rapidly develops into something much more interesting.

In the opening sequence, Captain Stanley speaks of civilising a town so remote it seems hermetically sealed from the rest of the planet. That this ‘civilising’ process will involve a violent rule of law is evident from the opening, but Stanley is no vigilante tyrant in police clothing. As the film progresses, it becomes clear he lives by a certain ethical code that informs his actions and represents a sharp contrast to the Machiavellian real politic approach to power exhibited by the town’s civil ruler, played with skin-crawling charm by David Wenham. Equally, it becomes apparent that Charlie provides the ballast that helps steer the unstable Burns ‘family’, a gang that includes not only Charlie, Arthur and their brother Mikey, but an Irish teenager and an Aboriginal man and woman. It is around the axis of Charlie and the Captain that the film’s action plays out, as each man’s dreams and emotional investments are battered and bent by an unforgiving country, a hostile Indigenous population and an environment in which power is measured in terms of naked domination.

Hillcoat’s images convey the utter foreignness of this country to Anglo-Irish colonialists born on the other side of the world, through wide-screen vistas of a land baked by relentless heat, dotted with pathetic touches of English life such as the lonely rose bushes tended by Captain Stanley’s wife (Emily Watson). We are made to feel not only the pitiless conditions, but also the fear and desperate desire to dominate anything—everything—that these vast spaces must have inspired. The English abuse the Irish and everyone abuses the Aborigines, as the whites sweat with the knowledge that they are strangers in a land of which they understand almost nothing.

Fear permeates everything in The Proposition: fear of the environment, of the Indigenous population, of violent Irish ‘others’, of European philosophical ideals that to the townsfolk sound like irresolute weakness. Fear and a desire for domination that cuts across racial and class boundaries. The Irish poet outlaw of Australian legend is a murderous psychotic, the colonial boys in blue are dim-witted sadists, the well-spoken upper class mayor an exponent of repressive brute force, and the town’s working population a sullen, easily led mob whose lust for blood is matched only by their squeamishness when presented with the real thing. Hillcoat deploys and inverts the types of our frontier mythology to confront us with a new myth of Australia’s foundation: that of a will to power fed by fear. In the guise of a Western, The Proposition is an exploration of ourselves.

The Proposition; director John Hillcoat, writer Nick Cave, director of photography Benoit Delhomme, production designer Chris Kennedy, producers Chris Brown, Jackie O’Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers; performers Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham; distributors SONY Pictures.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 18,

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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