What fresh hell is this?

“When?” said the moon to the stars in the sky

“Soon,” said the wind that followed him home

“Who?” said the cloud that started to cry

“Me,” said the rider as dry as a bone

The rider takes up his gun

The Proposition begins with a shootout and it is the last one you’ll see. This is not your typical western and there are greater brutalities than gunplay here. When the shooting stops we are left with Captain Stanley (The great Ray Winstone, who also happens to appear in Sexy Beast, mentioned in my previous post) seated at a table across from Charlie Burns (Guy Pierce) and his little brother Mikey, both of whom are members of a notorious Irish gang lead by their eldest brother, Arthur. The gang has been charged with the rape and murder of a young woman named Eliza Hopkins along with her entire family. Captain Stanley informs the brothers that Mrs. Hopkins was with child at the time.

It is Stanley’s belief that Arthur Burns was the real catalyst for this atrocity and so he offers Charlie a deal: Charlie must find and kill Arthur before Christmas Day or they will hang his little brother and then come after him. For Charlie, there is no choice.

I will civilize this land

The Proposition is a Wild West poem that doesn’t even take place in the Wild West. Instead we are transported to the scorched, yellow earth of the Australian Outback, which is depicted as a gritty hell. Its ground is cracked, its trees bare and jagged.  Somewhere in the middle of this nightmarish landscape sits a charming cottage home owned by Captain Stanley and his wife, Martha. They have surrounded it with a makeshift fence made of sticks and twigs. Inside, Martha maintains the home with the kind of meticulous attention produced by willfully ignoring something else. Eliza Hopkins was Martha’s good friend and, as a stranger in a strange land, perhaps her only one.

Captain Stanley must prove to her that he can make this right. That they can be happy here. That all is not lost.  Meanwhile, Charlie rides.

He visits the graves of the Hopkins family, lingering at Eliza’s tombstone. He comes across a drunk old man named Jellon Lamb (an excellent John Hurt), who eventually reveals himself to be a bounty hunter:

We are white men, sir, not beasts. Oh, he sits up there in those melancholy hills; some say he sleeps in caves like a beast, slumbers deep like the Kraken. The Blacks say that he is a spirit. The Troopers will never catch him. Common force is meaningless, Mr. Murphy, as he squats up there on his impregnable perch. So I wait, Mr. Murphy. I wait.

Charlie knows who Lamb is after.  It is only a matter of time.

The two men part. Charlie is attacked and wounded by Aborigines. When he awakes, he discovers that he’s been rescued by his former gang, including Arthur himself, who has taken to perching on cliff tops and watching the sun rise. Arthur is intelligent, which makes him all the more dangerous, and one gets the impression that his nearly legendary status in this region was probably carefully crafted by none other than himself.

The brothers reunite, and Arthur reveals his skills are not limited to violence:

Love. Love is the key. Love and family. 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?

Arthur regards Charlie (and the world) from a cold distance.  It is as though he is merely waiting for Charlie to do what he knows must be done.  There is a scene where Arthur has shot Jellon Lamb in the back to defend Charlie.  As Lamb sits dying, he mutters some words from author George Borrow, which Arthur acknowledges before stabbing him in the heart.  Then, he hears the click of Charlie’s gun.

Why can’t you ever just… stop me, Charlie?

Back in town Captain Stanley has lost his tenuous control.  An example will be made of Mikey Burns by flogging him in the middle of town. 100 lashes.  It will surely kill him. Street justice is better than no justice at all, but Captain Stanley knows what this means. His proposition is null and void, and Arthur will be coming for them.

Soon, the brutality that lies just beyond the Stanley’s makeshift fence is kicking in their front door. Arthur does not necessarily seek revenge.  He seeks an excuse to unleash his demons on others. And when Charlie finally shoots his brother neither of them is particularly surprised.

Not the stomach, Charlie.

Like No Country for Old Men, The Proposition explores humanity in the face of unchecked violence.  No matter how hard Captain Stanley campaigns to “civilize this land,” his battle has already been lost. This is never more obvious than when he releases his Aboriginal servant, who says his goodbyes, strolls to the edge of their property and places his shoes by the fence before heading out into the wild.

“How?” said the sun that melted the ground

“Why?” said the river that refused to run

“Where?” said the thunder without a sound

“Here,” said the rider and took up his gun

2 Responses to “What fresh hell is this?”
  1. logosonthego says:

    Nice synopsis, loved the movie excellent acting. Great poem

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  1. […] who also appears as a tracker in another great Aussie film, The Proposition (2005), a film I have mentioned before. He plays a tracker again in the aptly titled, The Tracker (2002), in which he helps some white men […]

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