December 7, 2017
Finding the Reason for the Season in John Hillcoat’s ‘The Proposition’
Welcome to Alt-Christmas, our week of articles dedicated to movies that we like to watch this time of year, especially if we’re not entirely in the spirit of the season.
What could be hollower than to die alone?
The holidays are for family. Tradition dictates that we celebrate the coming together with a fanciful feast; at center table, we have a shimmering, crisp turkey packed with stuffing, surrounded by great gobs of mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and vegetables such as carrots, turnips, and parsnips. The smiles of our loved ones are illuminated by an array of candles, unpacked from their year-round hidey hole at the back of the closet. A Christmas tree should be featured prominently in the corner of the room: its bold evergreen steering the eyes of your guests to the merry collection of presents assembled around its base. Maybe there is a special note from your loving husband, a thank you and a sorry for any hardships he’s bestowed upon the family as a result of his miserable day job that sucked up his time, as well as his soul. Dammit, you can’t care if you’re thousands of miles away from civilization, Christmas is a time to be proper. Here, you can have Britannia’s rule defined in one glorious meal. “For what we’re about to receive may the lord make us truly thankful.” It’s our right as conquerors over the beasts of this land. Cheers!
Humanity has never looked filthier or proven more undeserving of an English roast than in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition. In the land down under, the British have dared to “civilize” a country that has pretty much been engineered to keep them out. The sun beams down upon their blistering, white faces while flies cake their bodies as if they were already rotting. Only the damned can survive such a hellscape; here there be demons. Your options are: perish, run, or join their ranks. Those children born after will need every ounce of ignorance to ever enjoy the baby Jee’s birthday again. Thankfully, we’re gleefully oblivious.
To the tune of “There is a Happy Land”, the opening credits scroll over a photo album of proud colonialists. We see the trapped stares of husbands and wives in prim and posh attire, and the ramshackle sheds desperately dreaming of loftier statuses as homesteads or hotels. There’s the occasional photographed corpse, a bandit gunned down in the dirt road, a family lifeless in their bed, and the Aboriginals forced into harmonious labor with their masters. Ancestors will look back and marvel. On second watch, they’ll wretch.
The film screams into existence on a shot of the terrified Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) ducking, crying, pleading for help as bullets whiz past his head and penetrate prostitutes caught in mid-rut. He’s a boy with a wail held over from infancy; a child nurtured into villainy by brothers made for this inferno. Slapped into chains, he’s placed under the aim of the nearly defeated Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), and his execution is set for Christmas Day. Unless…his equally incarcerated middle brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) rides out to the No Man’s Land of the Australian ranges to kill the eldest Burns, Arthur (Danny Huston). Among many other things, The Burns Gang is responsible for the Hopkins Outrage, a scene of grisly carnage that culminated in the rape and murder of Eliza Hopkins as well as the unborn child within her belly. The good folk demand justice, and the hopeless Stanley looks to turn one outlaw against another.
The 12 Days of Christmas provide the ticking to Mikey’s doomsday clock (“four nooses swinging, three crows are pecking, two dongs are pissing, and ol’ Mikey hanging from a pear tree”) while Charlie tracks a trail of gore deeper into the unforgivable desert. There, he finds the foolish staked to the ground by aboriginal spears, dead barkeeps spoiling in their taverns, and John Hurt’s grotesque bounty hunter pickling his misery in stolen alcohol. In terms of conversation, Charlie offers very little to the miserable sods around him, or even the potentially more miserable audience members fixed to bear witness. Will he murder one brother to save another?
While he wanders and contemplates, Charlie’s mission is narrated by the nursery rhyme vocals of his own screenwriter, Nick Cave. The Proposition is a dream-state forever on the verge of a nightmare. Whispers trickle in from the atmosphere simply to ignite into Warren Ellis’ screeching strings when the match of violence is struck. Any beauty to be found is only offered to accentuate the maggots wriggling under their boots. Few films swing so rapidly between awe and disgust; it’s an aggressively hostile attack on those that dare admit themselves.
’When?’ said the moon to the stars in the sky
‘Soon’ said the wind that followed them all
‘Who?’ said the cloud that started to cry
‘Me’ said the rider as dry as the bone
‘How?’ said the sun that melted the ground
and ‘Why?’ said the river that refused to run
and ‘Where?’ said the thunder without a sound
‘Here’ said the rider and took up his gun
Arthur Burns is concocted to be the beast of the story. Danny Huston obliges with a gregarious performance, not succumbing to the mustache-twirling theatrics of his blockbuster baddies, but disappearing into this despotic sibling reigning his supremacy across the face of the Earth. Arthur is a looming anti-Christ that we’re only offered flashes of in the first half of the film: long-haired, pot-bellied, and with an unblinking stare. As still as a gargoyle, he sits perched on clifftops awaiting the audacity of inevitable judgement. Can an actor vanish behind such a gargantuan figure? Yes. Over a decade later and I’m still waiting for this Huston to reappear.
For those trusted into his gang, his family, Arthur offers unconditional love. For him, that love is everything, and his singular fear is to die alone; to die hollow. When Charlie stumbles into their lair, Arthur deeply wants to believe his tales of young Mikey’s red-headed love affair. He willfully ignores the signs that point to Charlie’s nefarious machinations, and he plays along until the good folks of civilization reveal the bloodlust that boils beneath their own veins.
Captain Stanley’s failed proposal only turns the town against him. Mikey may only be a boy, but he was man enough to partake in atrocity. A hanging or 100 lashes to satiate the decent; vengeance beaten into the guise of justice. The final hypocrisy of Stanley and his wife enjoying that sumptuous English feast to honor Jesus’ birth fans Arthur’s flames of contempt for his homeland. It’s just one more excuse to revel in wickedness. Those justifications will never stop.
Is The Proposition ultimately just the foulest of misery porn? Maybe. It’s hard to pull yourself off the couch when the final iteration of “The Rider” plays over the credits. Are John Hillcoat and Nick Cave exposing or exorcising their white guilt? Like the ugliest of Peckinpahs, they’re looking to stomp the white hat/black hat morality that championed Westerns into mainstream celebration. Our picket fences pierce stolen land. It’s easy to recoil at the crimes of Arthur Burns; we may even root for his brother Charlie to squeeze the trigger and end his villainy. He is evil. But he’s an evil the English deposited on this kingdom. To survive this place, to summon our privileged present, they must eventually match that tyranny.