The Proposition

by F.

Last night we watched The Proposition, an Australian film. It stars Guy Pearce (of Memento fame) as the protagonist and is based on a screenplay by Nick Cave (of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Fame). While the reviews were good (including Nigel Andrews in the FT), the movie turned out to be adolescent trash.

As I was watching it, I thought—“This is like Blood Meridian.” Sure enough, I’m not the only one to make this association:

Have you read Blood Meridian, the novel by Cormac McCarthy? This movie comes close to realizing the vision of that dread and despairing story.

That’s Roger Ebert, who gives the film an overall positive review.

But I think this comparison says much: Blood Meridian, too, was merely a piece of adolescent trash—a violent fantasy of destruction that read more like a Bill O’Reilly wet dream that a story worth remembering. Yes, the prose is lavish and hypnotic—and that carried me through the book for about 100 pages. But style is necessary and not sufficient. On about page 101, I thought, “Why am I reading this? How many times must I read ‘They rode on.’? How many scalping/having sex with corpses scenes are going to be in this thing?”

Nick Cave’s script for The Proposition is amateurish. Even at only about 90 minutes, the film feels stretched. There is little dramatic tension. I swear, you can predict exactly what is going to happen—even what the characters are going to say. There’s a scene where Emily Watson—whom I love (see, e.g., Angela’s Ashes)—is sitting in her bath tub. Her husband interrupts. She is obviously disturbed by something and he asks her what’s wrong. Her dialogue is something like this.

“I have a recurring dream. Every night. I’m in a room and I see [a murdered woman], who is injured. She hands me a little bundle, wrapped in cloth. I turn it over—“

And at this point my wife and I look at each other and go, “IT’S A BABY! OH MY GOD!” And guess what?

“It’s a baby,” Emily Watson quavers.

Didn’t see that one coming.

So what’s the plot? Charlie Burns (played by Guy Pearce) is a middle child, with one older and one younger brother. The movie opens with him being captured with his younger brother by Captain Stanley, a provincial constable of some sort. Charlie is an outlaw. But Stanley actually wants Arthur burns, Charlie’s older brother. It seems that Arthur raped and murdered a local woman and her family. And she was “with child,” so you know he’s really a bad guy. So Stanley offers Charlie a proposition: he’ll let Charlie and his younger brother go free if Charlie brings in Arthur. But Stanley isn’t dumb: he holds back the younger brother as collateral. If Charlie doesn’t return in nine days, the kids gets hanged.

So far so good. That’s more or less Act I. Now the main tension is something like, Will Charlie find his brother? Gallop gallop gallop—Charlie rides off in search of Arthur. But we don’t spend much time with Charlie. Instead, we are back with Captain Stanley and his wife (Emily Watson). It turns out Stanley is pressured by the local politician to flog the younger brother–100 lashes. “But that will kill him,” says Stanley. “Do it!” says his boss the politician (or businessman or whatever). So as Charlie is out looking for his brother, Stanley’s men flog the kid. “This’ll mean the death of us all,” Stanley says, meaning, “If we kill this kid and Charlie and Arthur come back, they’ll kill us all.” Which, of course, they basically do. Didn’t see that coming.

In the meantime, Charlie does find his brother. This ends Act II, I guess. Now, what will Charlie do? Jeez, he’s pulled in two directions! On the one hand, there is his loyalty to his brother, who, it turns out, is really intelligent and appreciates poetry. He even knows the definition of the word “misanthrope!” Wow! He’s just misunderstood, right? He’s bad, but he’s really good, a kind of Nietzchean cartoon. Charlie feels something for his brother, apparently. So they bond a little, watch a sunset together—Did you know that rapists and murderers like sunsets, too? Wow!

At some point, they decide to ride back into town and rescue the younger bother. Presto: Act III. Charlie won’t bring his older brother in; rather, he’ll work with him to rescue the young’n. Gallop gallop gallop—of they go back to town, but not before Arthur, the older brother, stomps on a guy’s face and kills him. We had to see that, because, you know, he likes sunsets and poetry and singing and stuff, but he can also stomp a guy to death. See, he’s complex.

So they ride back into town in disguise and kill everyone. But Captain Stanley isn’t there. He’s at his homestead with the only beautiful woman in town (think: rape). Arthur decides to butcher some people, which we see a little bit of. But then the younger brother dies from his wounds after being flogged! Oh no! Didn’t see that coming. What will Charlie do now? Go and bury the little brother and cry a little. Because he’s the protagonist and he has to protagonate some.

Meanwhile, Arthur and his sidekick have ridden out to Captain Stanley’s homestead to kill the Captain and rape his wife. They intrude on the Captain and his wife while they are having Christmas dinner—Oh, the irony! Then Arthur tortures and beats Stanley—it appears he cuts his ear off. Or something. Anyway, he’s a bloody mess. Then the sidekick starts to rape the wife while singing “Danny Boy” or something—it’s supposed to be really sick. And—oh, he’s a baddie, this Arthur—he makes Stanley watch his wife getting raped, while sitting calmly by, enjoying the singing.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, here comes Charlie, back from burying the younger brother. What will he do? Will he let Arthur terrorize Stanley and his wife? Nope. He strides in, and while the sidekick is raping the wife, he blows his brains onto the wall, ensuring that Mrs. Stanley will have a lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder. Then Charlie turns to his brother, Arthur, and shoots him in the stomach. “Not in the gut, Charlie.” And then Charlie delivers the moral:


As in, enough with the violence. Arthur stumbles outside, Charlie follows as the Stanleys look on aghast. ” I have to be with me brother,” Charlie says. He catches up with his brother sitting out in the dirt, staring at the sunset. (Remember that scene earlier? Huh? Clever). The brother says something stupid and then dies. The end.

The review in Premiere nails it, I think:

With its bleak worldview and brutal violence, The Proposition is, without question, a visceral experience, but it’s also a curiously empty one.

You’re left wondering, Why? Well, this is really a movie for 14-year old boys. In fact, this may be, by now, a genre. Fourteen-Year Old Boy Stories have the following hallmarks:

  1. Rape (gotta have rape in there somewhere)
  2. Gross out violence (being butchered alive, say)
  3. Thin, schematic plot (this makes it “mythic”)
  4. Simple and obvious character motives (revenge, say)
  5. Few twists (you know exactly what’s coming and just want it to happen–just kill him for God’s sake!)
  6. Dull dialogue that merely provides a respite from the violence (“Love is what it’s all about. Don’t ever forget that.”)
  7. Evil characters who have a redeeming quality (love of music, reciting Shakespeare—remember A Clockwork Orange?)
  8. Moralistic or “mythical” ending (“he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”—some bullshit like that).

Other examples include:

  • V for Vendetta
  • A History of Violence
  • Watchmen

Grow up, boys.