Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Proposition

I read an article not long ago that stated as one of its qualifications for an anti hero "being able to tell the story of your life through any Nick Cave song." The Proposition is a movie that puts that idea to the test, as it's written by Nick Cave himself, and it proves to be a valid theory.

The film is about three brothers; Charlie (Guy Pearce,) Arthur (Danny Huston)and Mikey Burns, who once rode the wilds of Australia together as a criminal gang. We open with Charlie and Mikey holed up in a tin shack with prostitutes and their gang, as bullets come in from the outside. Mikey is useless, panicked and also mentally impaired. Charlie keeps cool and fires back, while trying to calm Mikey, but the situation appears hopeless as the prostitutes and his gang fall to the gunfire.

Charlie and Mikey are soon seated at a table with Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) Captain Stanley tells Charlie that he really wants to bring in Arthur Burns, the older brother. Charlie tells Capt. Stanley, "You're a copper Stanley, not a judge and jury." Capt. Stanley answers, "Well clearly Mr. Burns, I am what I wish to be."

When Charlie says that he doesn't ride with Arthur any longer, Capt. Stanley makes a proposition. He tells Charlie that if he kills Arthur, he can save his simple brother Mikey from being hanged, as well as a full pardon for Mikey and himself.Capt. Stanley calls Arthur a monster and mentions a horrific murder scene at "The Hopkins place" which is somehow more gruesome because one of the victims, Eliza Hopkins was pregnant. He informs Charlie that he knows where Arthur is, apparently a desolate place where "the blacks" won't go. He gives Charlie 9 days, ending on Christmas day and sets him free to find Arthur. Capt. Stanley brings Mikey into town, announcing him as one of the Burns gang, and declaring "I will civilize this place."

He deposits Mikey in a cell and is surprised when his wife Martha (Emily Watson) visits him at the jail, reminding her that she wasn't to visit him at work. She reminds him that he hasn't been home in three days and persists in asking when he;ll be coming home until he says he'll be home later. Although speaking somewhat sternly, he addresses his wife with respect. When Martha leaves, he chastises his officers and warns of consequences for making an off color innuendo about Mikey Burns being "plenty man enough." At home later Martha asks about Eliza Hopkins death being swift and Capt. Stanley evades the question. They share a tender moment lying in bed when Martha asks him to share his burden with her, and says she believes in him.

The next day, Charlie, en route to Arthur, happens upon Jellon Lamb (John Hurt) a bounty hunter looking for Arthur Burns who has settled into a little house beneath the cliff where Arthur is hiding. Jellon makes a bad impression immediately by continously making craacks about the Irish, prompting Charlie to put a gun to his head. Jellon is incorrigible, however. He continues with the Irish jokes and pushing for Charlie's name. Charlie tells him his name is Charlie Murphy.

Charlie Burns: Do you pray, Mr. Lamb?

Jellon Lamb: Good Lord, son, no, I do not. I was, in days gone by, a believer. But alas, I came to this beleaguered land, and the God in me just . . . evaporated. Let us change our toast, sir. To the God who has forgotten us.
Jellon rambles about Charles Darwin, scoffing that white men and the aboriginal people could have a common ancestor. He reveals that he's waiting for Arthur,
Jellon Lamb: "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 knocks Jellon out and says: "Aye, you wait. You wait here... bounty hunter." and sets out up the mountain towards Arthur.

Capt. Stanley and Martha are dressed up like proper English people, having a civilized breakfast, and talking about what they miss about England. One of Capt. Stanley's officers shows up to interrupt their breakfast to tell them about some aboriginals that were found hiding in the ranges. Capt. Stanley has an aboriginal man translating for him as he asks them about Arthur. They tell him that Arthur can't be caught, and that he can turn into a dog. Capt. Stanley doesn't find this useful. Capt. Stanley's men sit outside in the meantime, joking about having sex with Martha.

Charlie is making his way up the mountain, and after catching and eating some dinner, he's surprised to have a spear run through his chest by an aborigine, who Charlie can see is shot in the head, before blacking out. He wakes up in a camp with a woman tending to his wound. We see Arthur show up, watching Charlie as he sleeps. Martha is taking a stroll though town, standing out like a sore thumb, by dressing as a completely proper lady. One of the shop owners gives Martha some news to ask her husband about.

Arthur finds Charlie awake and they discuss family. Arthur asks why Mikey isn't there and Charlie tells Arthur that Mikey met a girl. Arthur seems amused asking many questions about the girl. Charlie says: "He worships you know. There was a time we both did." Arthur tells Charlie that he was right to leave as Mikey deserves better. Back at the jail, the police taunt Mikey changing the "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to reference his hanging.  At home, Martha asks what Sgt. Lawrence meant by saying Mikey was "man enough"
She insists that he tell her what he did to her friend Eliza, and he insists she doesn't want to know. Their argument is interrupted by Eden Fletcher arriving to meet with the Captain. Eden informs him that one of his men was killed by aborigines in retaliation for the killing of one of their group. Eden goes on to talk about reciprocity and says"If you're going to kill one, make sure you kill all of them."

Eden also informs Capt. Stanley that he plans to have Mikey flogged with 100 lashes. Eden confronts the Captain about the proposition, the rumour having spread via the lower officers. Capt. Stanley expresses serious problems with this, stating that he doesn't believe Mikey was responsible for anything due to his simple mental condition. Eden criticizes the proposition he offered Charlie, particularly the pardon offered to Charlie and Mikey, asking Capt. Stanley again "Who do you think you are, the judge and the jury?"  Stanley defends his position stating that he holds Arthur responsible for the atrocities, and knows that Charlie will do anything to protect Mikey. Martha listens outside the door as Eden shows outrage over the rape and murder, and declares again that he's to have Mikey lashed, and Charlie hanged if he returns. Martha is visibly shaken with outrage, as the Captain tells her to stay there.

He heads to the jail and finds his officers taunting Mikey. Capt. Stanley has a hard time containing his anger, knowing their talking has led him here.  He dismisses them at gunpoint and when Mikey asks where Charlie is, he answers that he doesn't know in a reassuring tone. Soon he hears the townspeople arriving at the jail. He goes outside to meet them. When they demand Mikey, he threatens to shoot the first person to lay a hand on him. Eden arrives as well, but Capt. Stanley doesn't back down. He is surprised that his wife shows up as well, joining in the demand. "What if it had been me?" She asks. Capt. Stanley drops the jail keys, but clearly knows this is a bad idea. Before they reach 50 lashes the crowd is sickened by the lashing's  effects on Mikey. Martha collapses with revulsion. Capt., Stanley takes the whip and flings it at Eden, getting blood on his face. "You're days are through here Capt. Stanley." Eden responds.

Leaving men at the jail to tend to Mikey, Capt. Stanley and Martha head home. He closes the doors up trying to seal the house, obviously aware that there are consequences coming. He tries to convince Martha to eat while she sits in bed still shocked. He apologizes to her for the ordeal, explaining that it was all to protect her and that whatever idea of justice he had, he isn't sure of anymore.

At Arthur's camp, Samuel Stote, Arthur's sidekick, sings a song for everyone, prompting Arthur to say "You could shame a nightingale." Arthur announces to the group, "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?" Samuel is startled by gunfire in the distance, but Arthur explains that it's miles away. Sgt. Fletcher and the aboriginal tracker helping them head off towards smoke in the distance, as they search for rebel aborigines. Arthur's camp sleeps, while he sits up in the night staring at the moon. Fletcher's crew has killed a family and taken over their house for the night.  Charlie wakes to find Arthur burning everything int heir camp. Arthur leaves Charlie to recuperate, rushing off with Two Bob to grab a horse for Charlie. They find Sgt. Fletcher outside relieving himself. Fletcher reveals that Charlie is out to kill him and offers to help. Arthur's response is to stomp him to death.

While Arthur is out, Jellon Lamb has found the camp and has Charlie tied up as well as the other members of the gang. He parades Charlie around bragging about his abilities and insulting the Irish. He reveals that knows Charlie is one of the Burns brothers. Lamb stops in his tracks and we see blood appearing on his shirt, shot from a distance, as Arthur appears. Lamb collapses, spouting poetry, which Arthur answers:
Lamb: There's night and day brother, both sweet things. Sun and Moon and stars, all sweet things. And quiet, there's a wind on the east. Life is very sweet, brother.
Arthur Burns: Life is very sweet, brother, who wish to die.
Jellon Lamb: Ah.
Arthur Burns: George Borrow, I believe. A worthy writer, and a beautiful sentiment sir. But you're not my brother.
Arthur stabs him, and leaves him dying. Charlie gets disgusted when Arthur starts torturing Lamb with the knife, and pulls a gun on Arthur. Arthur exclaims "Why, can't you ever just stop me?" Rather than shoot Artur, he puts Lamb out of his misery, and tells Arthur that Mikey is going to hang on Christmas. "When's Christmas?" Arthur asks. Charlie just says "I've got some riding to do." Arthur calls out "Brother!"

Capt. Stanley and Martha are looking through Christmas decorations that she procured. Stanley is amazed at the things she she has, including fake snow. The doctor knocks at the door, which Capt.. Stanley opens very carefully at gunpoint. He tells them that there's nothing he can do for Mikey, as he's too far gone.

Arthur, Samuel and Two Bob follow Charlie, conversing on the way:
Samuel Stote: What's a misanthrope, Arthur?
Two Bob: Some bugger who fuckin' hates every other bugger.
Samuel Stote: Hey, I didn't ask you, you black bastard
Arthur Burns: He's right Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity.
Samuel Stote: Is that what we are, misanthropes?
Arthur Burns: Good lord no. We're a family.

Officer's return to town with "rebel aborigines" However it's soon clear that the officers are Charlie and Arthur and the gang in disguise. They overtake the jail easily and find Mikey suffering. Eden is appalled to finds the jail empty and the guards only a dead and bloody mess. Martha and Capt. Stanley try to cat civilized as if nothing's wrong at home, while Samuel and Arthur get cleaned up and Charlie and Two Bob bury Mikey who has died. Two Bob tells Charlie it's his fault for leaving the gang. The Stanley's begin carving a bird for a nice quiet candlelit dinner. They sit down at the table and Martha prays ironically "For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful." This is punctuated y Arthur and Samuel blasting through the door. Arthur takes Capt. Stanley into another room, leaving Samuel to guard Martha. Samuel starts eating their dinner as they listen To Capt. Stanley struggling in the other room. He then drags Martha into the room to watch as Arthur shoots Capt. Stanley. Samuel then throws Martha on the table intending to rape her as Arthur sits calmly close by.  Charlie walks into this scene, telling Arthur that Mikey's dead. Arthur remarks on Samuel's singing while he holds Martha down, saying "Listen to that, he sings like a bird!"
Charlie places his gun to Samuel's head and kills him, then shoots Arthur in the gut. Arthur says "Not the gut Charlie." Charlie shoots him in the heart and says "No more."

He leaves the Capt. Stanley badly maimed and struggling to get up and Martha still shocked on the table and says "I'm going to be with my brother." He finds Arthur outside sitting on the ground looking towards the horizon. Charlie sits down next to Arthur as the sky gets dark. Arthur says "You got me Charlie. What are you going to do now?"


John Hillcoat makes the picture look completely unpolished, not as in bad looking, but the dirt and dust of these characters is apparent in every frame. The  movie is at heart a western using the elements of the Australian setting and culture to best effect, feeling a bigger and more inhospitable than a modern western otherwise could. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis score the picture, making the music very much a part of the characters, at times laying back ground, at others impressing us with urgency or creepy mysticism, but never in a way that pulls us out of the picture.

Guy Pearce's Charlie is terrific, stoic and a man of few words, but a man of utmost seriousness. His underplaying works terifically here as the bridge between the well intentioned but naive, Capt. Stanley and the charismatic but twisted Arthur Burns. Danny Huston is tremendous as Arthur, portraying a man who contains the greatest poetry and the greatest of atrocities simultaneously. We see why his brother loves him, and why his brother would leave him just as clearly. Ray Winstone is pitch perfect as a man who really more than anything wants his wife to feel safe and respectable but makes the mistake of taking on too much alone and overestimating his own abilities and foresight. Emily Watson also shines, her Martha clutching principles and causes she doesn't fully understand, and don't apply in her new environment as she would believe they would. Her persistence, while endearing has consequences she can't face, and she is believably oblivious to that fact. John Hurt's Jellon Lamb is an instant character classic, loathsome to the core, if somewhat of a bit player here.

At heart, this ugly movie is an appreciation of the depth of connection that the idea of family has. Charlie must kill one brother to save another. While Arthur may clearly deserve to be killed, we can't eliminate the fact that they do not have a superficial relationship. Charlie may despise Arthur, but he also loves him deeply. His problems with Arthur's brutality surfaced long before the proposition was presented to him, but he was content to part company, as this would keep these facts from facing him and Mikey. Protecting Mikey, is his main responsibility, and while it's implied that Mikey participated in the atrocities, there's no question that he is too simple to know what's right and wrong. Charlie doesn't have that purity, but wants to protect it, because he doesn't have Arthur's apathy. He's forced to assume the role of protector because his older brother is depraved.  Charlie doesn't journey anywhere in the movie that he hadn't already considered. He had likely considered killing Arthur before but wasn't eager to do this. Both Arthur and Charlie seem difficult to surprise, as if they knew this is how things would go eventually but hoped to avoid it. When Charlie kills Arthur, despite the fact that Mikey is already dead, yet refrains from killing Capt. Stanley, it shows that he has a good sense of where responsibility really lies. Capt. Stanley just stepped into a situation that was far above his station or ability to control.

Capt Stanley is a man who has come a good way through determination and assertiveness. But, much like his wife, he treats this hostile territory by the rules he would use in England. He's also surprised that Fletcher would talk behind his back, showing that he generally expects men to be good. This also shows why he would be so determined to bring in Arthur, who he calls a monster. It isn't the deeds that bother him as much as people's perception that Arthur is more than a man. He wants to reveal that no one is beyond the natural rules, as this would reinforce the fantasy that he carefully builds with Martha. If the rules can apply, they can have their civilized life here. Sadly, he wants this too much and overreaches ensuring that fantasy's destruction. Ironically it isn't Charlie or Arthur that are beyond him, but Eden, the face of civilized authority. Eden's capacity for cruelty is on par with Arthur's as his sense of the rules is not tempered with happiness as Captain Stanley's is.

Watching Captain Stanley dote on Martha, never speaking a word to break her suspension of disbelief is very moving. He knows that they will very likely be dead at any moment, yet he plays along, while watching the door, perhaps enjoying the moments as he knows they are limited. He never blames Martha, for her part in inciting the lashing, knowing that she didn't understand the ramifications of her actions. He instead apologizes for not being able to protect her. Capt. Stanley is the one profoundly changed by these events, as the fantasy he helped to build is forever disrupted and his sense of justice broken.

These are all fully human characters, as likely to be deranged as kind. The true of heart can be misguided, the weak used as pawns in struggles between stronger men, most of which happen below the surface. Everyone in "The Proposition" struggles, although some more than others. The struggle is not to be right or wrong but only to be able to live in an oppressive environment with your understanding of the world intact. The monsters don't know they are monsters, and good men don't call themselves that. Every motive is simple and perhaps even reasonable, but they won't make room for each other and therefore can't exist together. And there is also the question of evil, the one fact that all motives agree on is that Arthur must be stopped. Charlie knows this better than anyone, but he doesn't forget, that in stopping Arthur's madness, he also kills something of beauty, because both exist in the same man. He has to kill him and he does. Charlie doesn't have to sit with him as he dies, but he does, perhaps feeling Arthur's earlier comment:

"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?"


Widow_Lady302 said...

It does indeed sound like something Nick Cave would write, like one long song. Beautiful review, from the details you point out I would guess it really touched you as a story.

My thoughts, monsters rarely know they are monsters...they usually think of themselves as men/women in the "right" of things.

Wonderful review, Brent! Thank you!

INDBrent said...

Cool I'm glad you can see how it fits in with Cave's work. It most definitely does! I found it very moving. And re: monsters, yep. agreed.

Kap said...

I need to see this one...

INDBrent said...

Yeah, definitely. Obviously I recommend it. I had high expectations for a Murder story from Nick Cave, and I was not disappointed in the least.