DVD Review: The Proposition
The Proposition is an almost psychedelic journey into the violent, untamed past of the outback, and probably the best film on the nature of crime and punishment that I've yet seen. As the film starts, lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) has just apprehended hardened criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey. As the three sit among the corpses of those who didn't survive the shoot-out, Stanley presents Charlie with the following (eponymous) proposition: if Charlie kills his dangerous older brother, Arthur, Mikey will avoid the noose.
As Stanley sees it, Mikey, a simpleton, and Charlie, mild and indecisive, are no real threat. Arthur, on the other hand is a cold, intelligent monster, completely without remorse. In his quest to, as he sees it, 'civilise this land', stopping Arthur from committing further crimes is more important to Stanley than punishing Charlie and Mikey for crimes that have already occurred. Unfortunately, everyone else in his little town has quite the opposite opinion, and although it might seem that Charlie is the one with the greatest dilemma, choosing as he is between two brothers, it is Stanley who finds himself treading the line between those actions he believes to be right, and those which cause others to despise him.
The single line which encapsulates the moral message I took from this film – not that it is, at least in any conventional sense, a morality tale – is uttered with disdain by 'fortune hunter' Jellon Lamb (a show-stealing performance by John Hurt): “We are, at bottom, one and the same.” In this specific case, Lamb is pouring scorn on Charles Darwin for claiming that white men share a common ancestry with monkeys, and -shock, horror- even aborigines. “We're Englishmen!” he rages, shortly after holding a knife to Charlie's throat, “Not beasts!” A later scene in which the people of Stanley's town are unable to watch the flogging they were so eager for Mikey to receive underscores the sentiment that Lamb is so appalled by: that Mikey is a person, just like us. Although he may have committed horrible crimes, flogging him (and the words don't convey the ordeal he is put through) is a horrible crime in itself. One does not excuse the other, as we are all the same: criminals and law abiding citizens.
Not that anyone in this movie manages to keep their hands clean – one striking example being when, to assuage his superiors, Stanley engages in the genocide of aborigines with only the weakest reluctance. In this case he is enacting the law of his era, simply doing away with 'rebel blacks'. But to a modern audience this is (hopefully) clearly as much an evil deed as anything the Burns gang has engaged in. This is a further assault on our notion of civilisation and what (if anything) separates us from animals – the reminder that our civilisations are almost all built on the vile mistreatment of people who merely happened to belong to other civilisations, but who we convinced ourselves were not the same as us.
One final thing I found to be especially conspicuous was Charlie's profound hesitancy. At one point late in the film, Lamb accuses him of being singularly useless, and the charge is definitely one that sticks. Charlie drifts quietly through the film, sent to his brother by Stanley's proposition, but unwilling to act either to help or hinder his sibling's misadventures. In a film in which violence is superbly depicted as never less than repugnant (often with a noticeable lack of explicitness – for example, blocking our view of the knife sliding in and instead leaving us only with the expression of the person being stabbed), the one act of violence that would be the most justifiable – killing Arthur Burns – is also the one which is left until the last possible moment, when Charlie is forced to act, not by any logical consequence of the plot, but purely by his humanity. I find Charlie's characterisation to be strangely compelling; he is representative of probably most of the people in the audience: the infamous good person who stands by and does nothing, even takes part if it seems like the done thing.
The Proposition is a powerful, atmospheric movie, alternating between almost surreal depictions of outback desolation and nail-biting scenes of menace. With perfect visuals, outstanding performances, and an absorbing, anachronistic soundtrack of ambient noise and quiet vocals, this is a film that can't help but make you sit up and listen, though there's no guarantee you'll like what it has to say.