THE PROPOSITION: A Kantian Australian West

The Proposition. 2005. Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Nick Cave.
Starring Richard Wilson, Noah Taylor, Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Robert Morgan, David Gulpilil, Oliver Ackland, Danny Huston, Emily Watson, John Hurt, Tom Budge, Tommy Lewis, & David Wenham.

Autonomous / UK Film Council / Surefire Film Productions.

Rated R. 104 minutes.
Crime / Drama / Western

The Proposition is a unique, innovative use of Western cinema. Right off the bat, the fact Nick Cave wrote this screenplay should interest a good deal of movie fans, particularly if you dig on his music like myself. Even better, this reunites Cave with director John Hillcoat. They did a film in 1988 called Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, a prison drama about the state of incarceration, where it was then, and where it might be in the future. I loved that movie, and though it had flaws Hillcoat proved his worth as a feature film director right off the bat.

After this came The Proposition, almost two decades later. Hillcoat has gone on to do some great stuff, from the excellent Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road to the recently way (unfairly) underrated Triple 9. Yet no matter if he makes a hundred pictures, this amazingly nuanced look at some of the early problems in Australia through the lens of the Western genre will likely always be his most accomplished work. Cave’s story encompasses a lot— almost too much at times, although still everything works. He manages to look at colonialism in Australia, the job of those early British officers to try shaping the wild land into a ‘civilised’ colony, the plight of Irish prisoners essentially banished to the harsh wilderness of the countryside, plus a whole host of themes from the Kantian philosophy of morality to the boundaries of love and family. Combine Cave and his solid screenplay with Hillcoat’s brutally honest style of directing and The Proposition comes out as one of my absolute favourite Westerns.
Pic1Ultimately at the core of Nick Cave’s screenplay is a Kantian dilemma. Whereas some may agree with Captain Stanley (Winstone) and his decision to pit brother on older brother, under threat of death for a third younger brother, Immanuel Kant would likely have some trouble reconciling here. In the realm of Kant’s philosophy, he writes about the categorical imperative, which essentially means an unconditional requirement that needs to be obeyed under any and all circumstances, and does not require some other purpose for its solution— it is not a means to an end, it is an end in itself.

So for instance, when Kant writes that this categorical imperative is an end in itself, he further goes on to describe good will— it’s good not because of any effect it has (i.e. putting money in a homeless person’s cup), but it is “good just by its willing” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals 10). So it’s all fine and well to put that money in the cup. However, Kant believes that for this act to be truly altruistic then there’s also got to be a void of any ulterior motives, in that putting money in the cup shouldn’t fulfil your emotional needs/wants, it ought to be solely done with the intent of helping that homeless person. But there’s a further problem along the line in the Kantian philosophy of morality.
Pic2First off, can we apply Cpt. Stanley’s moral decision to both use a criminal to catch a criminal and threaten the life of another criminal for blackmail as a universal, moral decision? A categorical imperative this decision is not. Second, Kant worries about the unpredictability of our own personal moral decisions, and whether it could adversely affect the future rather than be totally positive, as we often expect. That is to say, when Cpt. Stanley lets Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) go off to hunt his elder brother Arthur (Danny Huston), then detains the youngest brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), he is unable to see through his thick fog of moral intent that this will have far reaching, devastating, even fatal consequences.

Under the guise of protecting the people and civilising the newly colonised plains of Australia, Stanley makes a dubious moral call. Everything starts to fold in on itself later when Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) makes things worse by having Mikey whipped nearly to death, all as a result of one officer unable to keep Stanley’s secret. Loose threads in the deal Stanley brokered quickly give way to chaos and prompts an unforeseen confrontation of Greek tragedy proportions, which brings down far worse trouble than the continuing reign of Arthur Burns amongst the Outback. In the finale, events transpire that really make clear to Stanley his fast and loose moral decision really did nothing to civilise the Outback. Rather, it brought all that violent madness he wanted to put a lid on right to his very own doorstep. So, if Kant were to have it, at the very least Stanley would’ve simply dealt with Charlie and Mikey on their charges, then continued lawfully hunting down Arthur.
Pic3-1The brutality of this Australian Western picture is almost unparalleled in the Western genre as a whole. Naturally we expect a certain degree of it. All the wildness of frontier living, all the harshness, the fact Australia was unique in its birth as being cobbled together by the British into a large land the filled with colonists and Irish prisoners, this amounts to an impressively violent vision of the burgeoning land that is Australia. There are some incredibly well executed practical effects that blow me away every time— the blown apart head just before the film’s 40-minute mark is brutal. Even just the gritty ruggedness of the Burns clan is fascinating, coupled with the raw look of the locations. You actually feel like taking a shower after watching The Proposition— each time a fly buzzes near somebody, or some food, you want to reach inside the screen and bat it away. There’s a visceral truth to the way Hillcoat and his crew handle the entire production, making it one of the most honest Western pictures ever made.

Some other nasty, key moments:

Charlie takes a spear to the chest before the blown up face, I dig how it goes through him then touches the ground, so he kind of falls back and is held up by the spear itself. Makes you cringe almost, well done. Later on, Mikey’s whipping takes precedence over much of the violence simply because it looks ruthless and goes on for a while. A highlight of that scene, and the film overall in terms of horrific content, is the disgusting wringing of the whip, so you can see exactly how much blood he’s lost.
Pic3So how can anyone not find this a totally impressive bit of cinema? The atmosphere, the look and feel of the film is so palpable you can just about cut it with a fork and knife. Chew right into it. Even better, Ray Winstone and Emily Watson play a tortured married couple: him a British Captain charged with keeping an Australian Outback village safe from marauding Irish criminals, her a wife dealing with a husband whose sexual drive and his entire life with her is affected by the work he does(/tries to do). On top of that Cave throws into the mix a bit of early cocaine, as Cpt. Stanley takes them for headaches— probably part of why he has sexual troubles. Mainly, it is the tension between them over the criminals with which he’s made a deal, the same ones that took part in the rape and murder of her pregnant friend. Watching these two great actors together with such a tragic wedge between them is like performance heaven.

In addition, there’s Guy Pearce and Danny Huston, as the two oldest Burns brothers. Pearce puts in a subtle, thoughtful performance— Charlie is like a sentinel in the desert at times, others the vicious animalistic criminal side of him comes out when necessary. Always loved Pearce, and here he dives both mentally and physically into the character of Charlie. But Huston is perhaps one of the best. His is a similarly subtle role, but with more brooding intensity. Arthur’s character is one of madness and at once he’s calculated, cold, driven by pure hedonistic desire. With an actor like Huston this role that might easily have been played in cartoon-like caricature of a villain comes off as proper frightening. Huston is a vastly overlooked actor in my opinion, whose pure talent breaks through the screen in his supporting yet important role.
Pic4You take all these amazing aspects, then alongside throw in a score by Cave and frequent collaborator Warren Ellis. Isn’t it magic? There are times the music will unsettle you. Others, it is brilliant and beautiful and emotionally full. And then they bring out some screeching sounds near the end as the pace picks up, with things sonically breaking down mirroring the descent of the plot. So not only is Cave in full force as writer, he brings a great deal, as usual, as musician.

This is one of the best Westerns. Period. I’m a huge fan of the genre. When this came along, I saw how the genre can last and be subverted slightly, used in different contexts than the American Wild West. Yes, there are other movies long before this which do the same things. However, the Australian setting of The Proposition brings along with it some unique thematic material, which Cave and Hillcoat both use to great effect. Maybe this grim, dismal material is not for everyone. But nobody can deny the power of the film, its effort, and above all its willingness to strike out and be different almost in a corner of cinema on its own.

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