The Proposition (2005)

dir. by John Hillcoat, starring Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone and Danny Huston

poster for The Proposition

Review By: The Western Guru (Nick Schwab)

"There's night and day brother, both sweet thing; Sun and Moon and stars, all sweet things; There's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet brother, so who would wish to die?"

-- George Borrow

Birth and death can be called a shot between two points. Whether the soul is infinite in a deity sense is hotly debated, but the fact remains: life and its earthbound end are entwined. With that said, often the best art and philosophy is about death. If it is not, it is all about living, and thus essentially tells one how to live positively before reaching the literal (or metaphorical) afterlife.

Throughout life one always searches for life’s meaning. One must wonder if one day in their death throes  that this existential search for substance is given definition in what is often a harsh world.

The 2005 Australian Western, The Proposition, is an existentialist film. Whether it provides the answer to life’s journey is not for sure, but the heart of its embedded philosophy surely makes a strong case.

In the final frame of this John Hillcoat directed treasure, a character asks another in their final breath in the very last line of dialogue, "What are you going to do now? When taken into account the questions presented in the film, one can not help but see this difference: The sun will rise to another day, but to what purpose for humanity?

As nothing in this life is definitive, human existence can be thought as nothing more than an experiment from a higher alchemist or strictly a scientific fluke, both of which can very well revert itself to nothingness, especially when considering the history of human self-destruction and survival of the fittest.

Taking place in the 1880's Australian Outback, the opening frames display a barrage of emotions drawing from our predatory and Neanderthal impulses: gunfire, blood spurting, and humans drawing their last breath. The realization comes to the viewer that The Proposition is also a modernized western from the pen of Nick Cave, the legendary-and-literate rocker of The Birthday Party, The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman.

After this bloody skirmish, the film fades into the actual proposition being made that follows outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and a deal being given to him by Captain Stanley ( Ray Winstone) after his younger brother Mike (Richard Wilson) and he is captured by the Captain in this opening shootout after their band of outlaws killed a local family.

Pearce and Huston

Guy Pearce and Danny Huston as Charlie and Arthur Burns

The Captain tells Charlie that he must find his psychopathic older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), and kill him. If he does not honor this deal, then Stanley will hang Mike in nine days, on Christmas Day-- also the birth of Christ (which is very thematically fitting.)

Ray Winstone

Ray Winstone as Captain Stanley, proposer of aforementioned proposition.

As in this very proposition that the film uses to ask us throughout, mainly by way of characters’ highly intellectual musings, if we indeed can or cannot break away from our survival of the fittest ancestry, however it was indeed begotten.

These musings, however, might be the film’s greatest asset, as well as its detractors' biggest talking points. Despite the often sensational direction of Hillcoat and Cave’s thematically acute script, the dialogue is often much too pointed and verges on the line of being unnatural and pompous. The script works its best when it does not try to announce its themes too loudly, but gets its point across quietly.

In that way, the film is surely modernized (not quite fully post-modern, though, but it does have some elements) in its self-conscious approach and sometimes hampering humor (oddly in the form of the rapist member of the gang, Samuel). These elements make The Proposition a tad more entertaining--as opposed to artistic--than intended.

However, when one truly thinks about its themes in the following scenes of the Pearce character’s choices of triage between his two brothers that the film gets more credence than most Quentin Tarantino films ever have accomplished.

As the film makes one wonder if the human race is destined to fail by its own devices or if it has an ultimate purpose in the galaxy’s design or future. Yet, this does not at all mean there should be belief in a higher power. The film makes a case that the human race will survive or fail due to how the race carries out the means for achieving fulfillment.

The notion of both a god and evolution is looked down on in the film by the Jellon Lamb character played by John Hurt, yet it also comes with a sense of satire. It can also be interpreted as the belief that many humans are too caught up in there own sense of being: they believe they were indeed created individually by a higher power and/or have an elitist right since a higher power does not have a bearing on the world.

They are not in-tune with the pleasantries of life so much that they forget what it is to live and love.

“Love. Love is the key. Love and family," states Arthur Burns. “For what are night and day, the sun, the moon, the stars without love, and those you love around you? What could be more hollow than to die alone, unloved?"

Yet, despite this debatable concept, this side of the narrative of the film is not the only conflicted theme that arises.

As there is another much-better handled parallel story in the form of Captain Stanley’s reluctance to show or tell his wife Martha (Emily Watson) the horrors that surrounded her simple, upper-class life. This gives the narrative a social commentary by pointing out the upper class's illusion to the harsh and bitter world of urban society.

There are many scenes in the film that show that those who are in the dark to the harsh underbelly of the world, whether they choose it or do not, are more ignorant to those who live with violence and persecution daily. This theology is shown in a whipping scene in which the mob of people who want an accomplice to a murder to be lashed to death for his crimes find that this man hurts like any other. Yet, he is but a boy, so who is the real monster?

It should also be pointed out that all the characters of the film, even the psychotic murderer played by Huston (who holds the family unit as a high value) are neither good nor bad in the way they are depicted. The characters do what they feel is right, and especially what fits their method of survival and fulfillment.

The film points out the facts; that all humans do this to some degree.

Moreover, more than a hundred years later, and even across the world in America, the newspapers and television  programs account that the human race may be doomed if humans don‘t learn to only live and love.

And therefore, The Proposition will surely be the film to play at the celebration of this change of human nature...or the elliptical funeral.

9.5 (In 0.5 Increments)

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