The Proposition

In a thoughtful consideration of Australian painting, an English art critic once noted that, “a nation based on an idea rather than on blood needs some transcendent image to reveal itself” (1). This critic was partially correct. The Australian colony evolved out of the British penal authority’s grand plan to solve the problem of their overcrowded prisons by shipping their felons to a vast new penal colony in the far-flung corners of the globe that would eventually be called Australia. This idea, which was not based on blood but nevertheless saw much of it shed, is also the idea behind Nick Cave’s film script, The Proposition, directed by John Hillcoat.

The Proposition is a re-imagining of bushranging life in outback Australia in the 1880s. Filmed in Winton, Queensland, and set in the fictional town of Banyon, Irish and English settlers have embarked upon a dogged mission to “civilize the land”. Archival photographs accompany the opening and closing credits of the film. Photographs of white-settler families are interspersed with Aboriginal Australians in chains. The latter photographs rather misguidedly signal the film’s engagement with indigenous issues and the atrocities committed against them by the white settlers. The presence of these photographic images signposts the film’s narrative structure.

Narrative in The Proposition is constructed out of a series of snap-shots. Within these portraits of Australian settler life, narratives of family and home are played out in a series of vignettes that are rather precariously strung together. That these narrative strands hang together at all is largely due to the stunning backdrop of the Australian landscape, which invests the film with its strongest narrative element.

This article considers the film’s representation of settler portraits in relation to its themes of indigeneity, family and landscape.

The film begins amid a violent shoot-out. The brutal murder of the Hopkinses, a local family, has also taken place. This scene then moves to a police cell where Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger, simpleton brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), are under interrogation for the crime. It is in this scene that “the proposition” is revealed. The proposition put forth by a policeman, Captain Maurice Stanley (Ray Winstone), is that Charlie and his brother will be pardoned if Charlie hunts down and kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), who Stanley quite rightly believes initiated the slaughter. If Charlie fails, Mikey will hang on Christmas day. Charlie has long severed ties with his wayward and murderous brother – “I no longer ride with me brother”, he informs Stanley – but Stanley remains unmoved and will not rescind from his mission to “civilize this land”. Stanley’s civilizing mission is what gives rise to his proposition. Stanley can no longer abide such policing rules, because these rules resist abidance in the place of unruliness that he and his young English wife, Martha (Emily Watson), have sought to tame. So it is on Stanley’s proposition, his lawless contract, that the film turns.

I

The photographic image, as Roland Barthes has reminded us,

is not reality but at least it is the perfect analogon and it is exactly this analogical perfection which, to common sense, defines the photograph. Thus can be seen the special status of the photographic image: it is a message without a code. (2)

The Proposition’s use of photographs in its opening and closing credits portends to a particular message, but these photographs become mere signs bereft of a referent. The photographs in the film’s opening point to a narrative theme of indigeneity. The authenticity of the photographs is confirmed by the requisite warning that such images may offend indigenous peoples. Yet, authenticity in relation to the depiction of indigenous issues remains lacking. At the Melbourne premiere of The Proposition, Cave, Hillcoat and Pearce assembled for a question-and-answer session following the film’s screening. In response to the question of how much research he carried out in writing the script, Cave confessed that he had done very little, reading just one book that mentioned the resistance waged by blacks against the whites. Cave remarked that this was something of a revelation to him. This seems surprising given that black resistance has been widely documented in a number of sources. (3) Infinitely more powerful in the treatment of indigenous resistance to white settlement is Fred Schepisi’s cinematic gem, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), or, even more recent, Rolf De Heer’s equally poignant, The Tracker (1998).

Cave’s motivation for writing the film script was that the subject of black resistance had not been given adequate representation in other Australian films and it was his intention to correct this absence. This absence, however, remains strikingly present in The Proposition. While the film makes certain moves in this direction, it then beats a fairly hasty retreat. In one scene, shackled blacks have been brought down from the mountains. With Stanley’s black offsider, Jacko (David Gulpilil), translating, they are questioned about the whereabouts of Arthur Burns. They confirm Burns’ existence by referring to him as the “dog man” and then proceed to howl in unison, shaming and undermining Stanley’s authority. Another fleeting encounter involves the Stanley’s black hired-hand, Toby. At the end of a day’s work, Toby walks to the gate, turns to face Maurice, and then proceeds to remove his shoes and socks. Maurice wishes him a merry Christmas, Toby returns the salutation with wry and ambivalent sentiment, and then walks out of the property bare-foot. How should we interpret this? I suspect Toby’s defiance here is to be understood as an act of resistance to white settlement, but overall this representation doesn’t seem entirely satisfying.

The Proposition

We then have the character of Two Bob (Tommy Lewis). Two Bob is the black member of the Burns gang. But Two Bob’s membership cannot be wholly understood as a righteous participation in black resistance. Two Bob’s actions give no reliable indication of this, except perhaps when he slits Jacko’s throat, calling him a “traitorous dog” for working with the white constabulary. Such forays, however, fail to fulfil the film’s promise to deliver on the subject of Aboriginal resistance.

Martin Flanagan has also pointed to the film’s inaccuracies in the face of its will to historical authenticity. Banyon’s pernicious landowner, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), overrides Stanley’s decision and orders the brutal and merciless flogging of Mikey. As Flanagan convincingly argues, landowners did not have the authority to administer such orders. Citing the legal processes enacted within Tasmania’s early penal system, Flanagan notes that felons charged with capital offences were routinely shipped to Sydney, where punishment was metered out as commensurate with the crime committed. (4)

Despite these apparent failings, critics have been overwhelmingly generous in their praise for The Proposition. Jim Schembri has hailed the film as “one of the most skilful westerns ever” (5). Obviously, he hasn’t seen Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), but maybe that’s beside the point. In staking its claim as “the first Australian Western”, the makers of The Proposition have ignored the competing and recognizable claims of other similarly themed Australian films, including Forty Thousand Horsemen (1940), The Man from Snowy River (1982) and the numerous versions of Ned Kelly. (6) The Proposition is not wholly a “Western” as such, but rather, like its aforementioned film predecessors, a pastiche of the Western genre. Cave and Hillcoat had been tinkering with the idea of an Australian Western for 17 years before it was finally made. Perhaps this explains why it only took Cave between two to three weeks to write it. Or maybe this explains the meagre research undertaken, which in turn explains the absence of narrative cohesion in the film.

Despite these criticisms, there are aspects of the film I enjoyed, notably the landscape.

II

The Proposition

Writing in the Weekend Australian, Evan Williams says of the film that it is “an authentic and powerful work of art […] it has a meaning that transcends its self-imposed boundaries”. Evans was responding to the visual splendour of The Proposition, explicitly the landscape. Evans writes of “the bleached and writhing terrain of stunted trees and whitened desert outcrops”, “the fantastic rock formations” and the “eerie patterns of cloud and sky” (7). Evans’ description carries all of the hallmarks one would readily associate with a Fred Williams painting, where splotches of paint form curious, seemingly inconsistent patterns, which then strangely merge in a striking articulation of the ever-changing shape and texture of the Australian landscape.

Martin Flanagan also says of the landscape in The Proposition that

this film should re-ignite a powerful interest in the Australian landscape […] Australia is dying as an idea [my emphasis] in our heads. This film brings the landscape galloping back into our imaginations.

Flanagan’s evocation of Australia as an “idea”, while perhaps being overly nostalgic and sentimental, nevertheless brings us back to the English art critic’s assertion that a country based on an expedient notion requires a transcendent image to reveal itself. Such musings seem to equally apply to Australian cinema. The landscape in The Proposition is the transcendent image that not so much allows the film to reveal itself, but rather serves to redeem it.

The representation of the landscape in Australian painting, literature and cinema remains a vigorously contested site. (8) As Ross Gibson has it, the landscape in Australian cinema persistently performs the role of the central character, “the point of fascination”. The topographical difference, the geographical uniqueness, Gibson argues, dupes Australian filmmakers into believing that this perceived “difference” is what sets Australian cinema apart from its European and American counterparts, when it fact it is performing a narrative act of “sameness” (9). Gibson further argues that the image of landscape that is projected onto the screen can never be an “objective truth” because the image is always strategically manipulated and variously influenced by any number of factors, including:

time of day; camera into sun; camera away from sun; stature, visibility; […] choice of lens; static shot; tracking shot […] location of landscape within the narrative shot.

Gibson notes that the list is endless, but concludes that the “landscape can’t act on cue” (10).

Well, maybe it can’t entirely, but the landscape can, nevertheless, narrate, which is precisely what it does in The Proposition. This is perhaps in no small way attributable to the outstanding talent of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme. I’m not really fussed about the lengths he may or may not have gone to in manipulating the images, because the end result is a masterful (and I think realistic) representation of the Australian outback, which is invariably as vast and majestic as it is claustrophobic and unforgiving. Ideas of land are never far from notions of home and family, and the film thoughtfully recognizes these links.

III

The Proposition

The theme of family runs through The Proposition and is inextricably tied to Stanley’s contract. The slaughter of the Hopkins family is the event that catapults Stanley into his unlawful action and civilizing mission. The rape and murder of Emily Hopkins is rendered all the more heinous because she was also pregnant. It is this detail of her brutal death that haunts Martha and moves her to participate (voyeuristically at least) in the public spectacle of Mikey’s gruesome flogging. Martha’s haunting is played out in a number of ways. Martha and Maurice’s desire for a family of their own goes unfulfilled due to what we gather is Martha’s infertility. Emily’s death and Martha’s inability to conceive come together in a recurring dream. One of the film’s most poignant and tender moments unfolds with Martha’s recounting of her dream to Maurice. She dreams that Emily Hopkins is clutching a baby, which she holds out to Martha. The baby tightly grips Martha’s finger and, even when Martha wakes, she can still feel the sensation of the baby’s grasp. “What do you make of that?”, she asks Maurice. Maurice, slumped in the doorway, tears streaming down his grubby and weather-beaten face, cannot answer but simply reaches for Martha’s hand, gently squeezing it as if to erase the tainted touch of the ghostly baby. Martha’s haunting finds further expression later in the film. Lying on the bed, she flicks though a women’s magazine before settling on a particular page, which features an advertisement of sewing patterns for children’s clothing. Martha’s finger gently traces the outlines of the sketch of the child, and it is this thoughtful and measured gesture that draws us into the broader dimensions of her grief. Grief for the death of Emily and her dead children is silently interwoven with Martha’s own maternal loss.

The complex structural elements of family are most strikingly defined through the Burns brothers. We witness the gentle, somewhat paternal, concern that Arthur and Charlie show toward Mikey, and yet the sibling dynamic within the Burns family equally produces a precarious tension between brotherly love and betrayal. This tension, of course, is eventually resolved by Charlie’s final fratricidal act. But family is also constructed out of friendship. When Arthur and his psychopathic cohort, Samuel Stole (Tom Budge), are riding in the mountains, Arthur ruminates on the characteristics of the misanthrope. “What’s a misanthrope”?, Samuel enquires. “Is that what we are”? “Nahh”, says Arthur, “we’re a family.” For Arthur, the bonds of family are not inextricably tied to blood, but rather the formations of family arise out of the “idea” of family. And so it is here that we see the manifestation, the personification perhaps, of the penal colony and its being based on an idea rather than blood neatly articulated.

Home, too, is intrinsic to the ideas of family and land within The Proposition. Out of the unforgiving landscape, Martha and Maurice have forged a European-style homestead, where Martha’s meticulously tended rose garden is strikingly at odds with the heat, the dust and the incessant swarming of flies. The rose garden in 19th Century settler history brings with it its own narrative significance. English settlers pining for the more “cultivated” landscapes of home, planted traditional English or “homesick gardens” (11). The garden for the English settler became a site where images of home could be cultivated and reproduced. But such images of home did not necessarily equate with homeliness and the film explores this anomaly from a number of interesting perspectives. The Stanley home, rose garden notwithstanding, carries all the hallmarks of an English country home. Tea is sipped from delicate china cups. Roast dinners are eaten in defiance of the unbearable heat. A portrait of Queen Victoria adorns a wall. Early in the film, the Stanley home attempts to merge interiority with exteriority. The home’s interior seems light and spacious despite the oppressive heat. As the film draws toward its awful conclusion, the home has become a garrison. Shutters are tightly secured and the doors are firmly bolted. The colony the Stanley’s sought to domesticate remains resistant to such advances.

IV

The Proposition

As the film moves toward its disturbing conclusion, Maurice and Martha are sitting down to their Christmas dinner. The tree is trimmed (complete with cotton-wool snow) and the table is set. Arthur and Samuel burst in, guns blazing. Maurice is hauled off into the study and Martha must endure the sounds of her husband’s brutal beating while threatened with having a carving fork driven through her eye lest she fails to remain silent. Arthur summons Martha and the Samuel into the study. Under Maurice’s distressed gaze, Samuel rapes Martha. Charlie then enters the house, shoots Samuel mid-rape and then shoots Arthur, twice.

Clutching his wounded abdomen, Arthur stumbles outside to greet the sunset in death. Charlie follows Arthur’s trail of blood which winds through Martha’s rose garden. The “homesick garden” undergoes a macabre re-configuration, which evokes its own strident symbolism. The English garden that was so keenly cultivated by the settlers in an attempt to erase the crude Australian landscape withers in the face of a broader cultural violence.

The rape scene points to the cinematic moment of resolution. And herein lies another problematic element in the film. To use rape as the pivotal device that gives rise to narrative closure achieves little apart from perhaps highlighting a distinct lack of narrative sophistication. Implicit in the rape of Martha lies a well-worn narrative convention whereby female vulnerability inevitably results in sexual abuse. We are alerted to Martha’s vulnerability early in the film. It is made clear that Maurice wants to protect her and, while this is not without some necessity (Maurice’s men openly leer at and sexually desire her), the stock standard concept of a vulnerable woman falling victim to rape is nevertheless gratuitously employed. In the context of the film, rape is unfortunately used as the device that returns us to the film’s central plot: Stanley’s proposition. Martha’s rape provides the occasion for Charlie to work through and resolve his moral dilemma and, in turn, fulfil the terms of the contract. This, perhaps more than any other aspect of the film, is the least satisfying.

The film concludes with Arthur and Charlie looking into an achingly beautiful sunset. The themes of settler life, family and landscape are apparent.

Despite its critical and popular acclaim, this is by no means a great film. Rather, The Proposition is a film with some interesting ideas that fail to fully reveal themselves.

On a less critical note, the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is superb. The soundtrack achieves what a good soundtrack should: it participates in the narrative action of the film. “Martha’s Dream”, for example, combines low strumming guitar with melancholic violin to convey Martha’s torment. “The Rider Song”, on the other hand, articulates the shifting moods of the landscape. Trees moan, rivers refuse to run, and the sun melts the ground and clouds cry. Cave has said of the film script that he first heard it musically and this is strongly evidenced in all of the tracks, which each in their own way bear a strong relationship to the narrative elements of the film.

Endnotes

  1. Robert Hughes, The Art of Australia (Melbourne: Penguin, 1966), p. 27.
  2. Roland Barthes, Image–Music–Text, translated by Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 17.
  3. Henry Reynolds has written widely on black resistance. See, for example, his discussion of this in Fate of the Free People (1995), The Other Side of the Frontier: An Interpretation of the Aboriginal Response to the Invasion of and Settlement of Australia (1990) and With the White People (1999).
  4. The Age, 5 November 2005, p. 18.
  5. The Age, 12 November 2005, p. 34.
  6. Several films on Ned Kelly have been made. The most recent was in 2003.
  7. Weekend Australian, 8-9 October 2005, “Review”, p. 23.
  8. See, for example, Graeme Turner’s National Fictions: Literature, film and the construction of Australian Narrative (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1986).
  9. Gibson figures that Australian cinema has a tendency to conform to the same narrative conventions employed by the Hollywood blockbuster. Equally, Gibson argues that landscape is always produced through Western eyes and, as such, is always framed by European understandings of nature’s relationship to culture. Gibson has a point, but I’m not convinced. See “Camera Natura: Landscape in Australian Feature Films”, in Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader, John Frow and Meaghan Morris (Eds) (Sydney: Allen& Unwin, 1993), p. 219.
  10. Gibson, p. 215.
  11. See Allaine Cerwonka’s Native to the Nation: Disciplining Landscapes and Bodies in Australia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).

About The Author

Carol Hart teaches in the English Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne, where she is completing a PhD on American Cold War nuclear film and fiction.