The Proposition

There is something distinctly post-apocalyptic about The Proposition, the stench of some horrific crime against the cosmos both comitted by the people in it and now endured by them. Everyone seems to be slowly dying, and the idea of a child, of perpetuation, is a memory either irrevocably lost or mournfully treasured, from the sheriff’s barren wife (and her friend who was raped and killed while pregnant) to the various child-men that Arthur Burns has taken under his wing. But the absence of children is just one aspect of the film’s larger and more important trope, the blasted backdrop against which the play is performed, the long burning shots of flat and dusty outback. Some of the actors apparently went to Dubai before going to Australia–to prepare for the desert conditions–but they claimed it didn’t quite prepare them for the experience of the place where they actually filmed, a place so devastating to the human body that it isn’t even so much post-apocalyptic as simply an ongoing physical manifestation of St. John’s wildest revelations.

Or, in any case, this is the experience of the movie, the lens through which the real landscape of the far outback is transformed into a moral tableau. While there are characters in the film who find the landscape beautiful, the cinematographer and director clearly do not share that vision; hearing Arthur Burns praise the beauty of the land is like hearing someone talk about how morally triumphant the New York Yankees are: it’s a string of words that simply can’t make meaningfully sense when placed in that order. And in contrast, the basic skeleton of the story is quite simple. Two of the notorious Burns brothers are captured, and the sheriff offers Charlie a pardon for both him and his younger brother if he will kill his older brother, Arthur. Violence ensues, and then the credits. But what really happens throughout the entire picture is that you decide for yourself, privately, that you are really, really glad you didn’t have to live in Australia back then.

So even though Charlie Burns ostensibly has a choice between his two brothers, between the ringleader of an outlaw gang or his child-man of a younger brother (and in that sense, a metaphoric choice between civilization and “going native”), he actually has no choice at all; everything and everybody in this film is equally doomed. There are no choices here, no good options. Arthur might pose as a poetic rebel who treasures family, but he is also a misanthropic murderer and rapist. The Sheriff is himself little better; while he may talk about justice and makes a halfhearted (and failed) effort to prevent the townspeople from lynching the younger Burns’ brother, it was his murderous desire that put the noose around the boy’s neck in the first place. So the final question, after everyone but our central character is either dead or brutally harmed, “What’re you gonna do now?” is just as unanswerable as his original choice. There is nothing to be done, not here.

Why is that? One of the bizarre things about this movie, as it happens, is that the guy who wrote the score-Nick Cave-was also asked to write the screenplay. And in this movie, putting the script in the hands of a songwriter makes a a certain sense: the music, the mood, and the atmosphere are primary, and while the story itself is compelling, it is also utterly derivative of a thousand Westerns that came before it. And yet, because this is not the “classic” old West, it brings something out of the genre that I think is always there, but not always perceivable with such clarity. That is, the spectre of genocide.

If you watch the “making of” featurette on the DVD, it’s clear that the issue of aborigines in Australia loomed quite large in the minds of the filmmakers, yet much larger than it does in the final script. In the actual film, the aborigines exist more or less as backdrop for the prospect of “going native,” a kind of silent presence that occasionally speaks, but even then, only as the exception that proves the rule. This illustrates, I think, the difficulty of importing something into a Western-aborigines as human beings-which the Western narrative so specifically excludes. Since the narrative of “the West” is about colonization, it’s a story that cannot have native peoples as the protagonists, and so this film mostly fails to import them.

Where the issue does make its appearance, then, is in the brooding sense of apocalyptic hopelessness in the landscape. Why, after all, is a movie premised on the historical conceit that “this is how your ancestors lived” so obsessed with the impossiblity of procreation? The inevitable failure of social reproduction? By displacing the fact of genocide onto the land, the film writes a distinctly different ecological narrative: rather than the classic “closing of the frontier” trope (and note, there are no railroads here, an otherwise unpardonable omission) we have something that looks a lot more like the Left Behind series.* Which raises interesting questions about the meanings that apocalyptic end-of-humanity narratives have in contemporary secular society. Where does guilt go when it can no longer be anchored in humanity=sinnerz paradigms? And where does it lead?

* Which I’ve still not brought myself to read. Who knew it would be hard to find used copies in Berkeley?