Ugly Familiarity

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Review of 'The Proposition', director John Hillcoat

Bushrangers Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his simpleton brother Mikey are captured by British law enforcer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). The captain makes a proposition to Charlie - Mikey is captured and will be hung on Christmas Day unless Charlie hunts down and kills his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston). The three have been implicated in the rape and murder of a couple of British settlers.

It's an Australian Western - not usually my first choice of genre. But like any film that centres on the battle for frontiers it is inevitable that it will raise questions of violence, race and class. The Proposition is about nationhood and nation building, which is most stark when, amid gunfire and senseless violence, the colonial settler captain insists, 'I will civilise this land.'

British civilisation is contrasted with the uninhabited and uninhabitable expanse of the Australian outback. British law and morality unravel around a rule by violence and racism so necessary to maintaining colonial control and nation building. There is a familiarity that runs through all stories based on British colonialists where the English aristocracy attempt to cling to their English ways of life despite the ridiculous juxtaposition of that against the harshness and un-Englishness of the Australian frontier.

Aboriginal people in the film are trackers and collaborators with the colonial rulers, servants to white society, or they are 'renegades'. There is one scene where a group of Aboriginal men are rounded up and held in chains purely to be questioned in relation to the whereabouts of Arthur Burns. The outright racism of the colonialists is expressed in fear and violence exhibited by the idea that if you kill 'one of theirs' they will want retribution and may kill one of yours - so you have to kill them all. And so teams of troopers are sent into the desert to round up Aborigines and kill them - a fact of colonial rule we know to be true.

Aborigines represent the idea that the frontier is a line between two civilisations with different claims to the land. The nation is always under threat and its legitimacy is always contested. It has taken a long time for this murderous reality of Australian history to be represented in popular culture, and it seems most unlikely that it should emerge in a Western. There is a sense in which there has been a tidal change in Australia in recent times whereby it has become acceptable to acknowledge the violence and racism the country was founded on.

The bushrangers, in keeping with historical accuracy, are Irish. At one point the Irish are described as 'just niggers turned inside out' - yet this facet of race and Australian history is never really delved into. The Irish question is not contextualised in terms of class or broader society, even though it is a large part of Australia's racist history. So, while race relations form a large part of the backdrop to the story, class relationships are not really drawn, meaning the race relationships are in danger of looking like relationships between individuals.

Charlie Burns's older brother, Arthur, is described as psychotic, but he is the only character who says anything that makes sense. He understands that his interests are in clear opposition to those of the landowners and the British law enforcers. He is also the only character who develops a congenial relationship with the 'renegade' Aborigines who live in the plains beyond the settlement.

The film is shot beautifully, utilising the Australian outback as a character in its own right. It has a strong cast, and it is clear that the film has been thoughtfully directed. Both these factors may have detracted from the fact that the actual narrative is weak, hackneyed and doesn't maintain the impetus to drive the story. The central storyline is little more than a Christian morality play that sees the cycle of violence as inevitable and a moral question.