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Midway through the brutal Western film The Proposition (2005), there is a crucial moment when the outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) trains a six-gun on his elder brother and erstwhile partner-in-crime, Arthur, who is butchering a man. Arthur (Danny Huston) hears the hammer click behind him and freezes. But no shot rings out. “Why can’t you ever just stop me?” rasps Arthur, as if pained. Finally, his brother shoots—to end the dying man’s suffering with a bullet between the eyes. Such mercy is the most one can expect in the unforgiving Australian Outback where the film takes place.

Charlie’s failure to kill his brother is a true failure, for he is on a mission to do just that. Arrested along with his halfwit younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), as members of the notorious Burns Gang, Charlie is tasked by the ranking local copper, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), with putting Arthur in the ground; in exchange, he and his brother will be pardoned. Charlie has until Christmas—nine days—to track the murderous Arthur Burns to his bushland lair and pull the trigger. If he fails, Mikey—seemingly non compos mentis, and thus innocent of any crimes—will hang.

The Proposition unfolds like a morality play absent a clear moral. Violence strikes like heat lightning, and civilization and savagery wear each other’s faces. Australia is not yet Australia. The settlers are English or Irish by affiliation still, their well-bred manners and all-too-human prejudices equally absurd. The action proceeds by juxtaposition: between the conflictual worlds of men and women, the incompatible folkways of blacks and whites, the equal and opposite violence of criminals and loutish cops, the consolation of the beautiful and the lure of the bestial. By the end, the borders between all these binaries have been violated or blurred.

We start, however, with sweetness, the sound of young voices singing the Andrew Young hymn “There Is a Happy Land” over a montage of frontier images:

There is a happy land,
Far, far away
Where saints in glory stand
Bright, bright as day

The faraway land is heaven, but also Australia—to the colonials a promised land of a different sort. (Music is naturally a vital element here: Singer-songwriter Nick Cave—he of “Red Right Hand” and Murder Ballads—wrote the screenplay and co-scored the film.) The sunny hymn becomes a recurring motif, played over domestic scenes, as if buttressing Captain Stanley’s insistent claim that he will civilize this backward land. At home, under the care of his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), he has the rose garden and china tea set to prove it. Never mind that said garden is absurdly enclosed by a fence bordering raw waste—the handsome white picket frontage giving way on either side to a paling of crooked sticks—nor that the captain’s marriage, though hardly loveless, is childless. It is as if he must tame the wild surrounds before he can confront the barrenness at home. Arthur, wanted for massacring the Hopkins family, is his bête noire, a synecdoche for all the forces that threaten civilization.

Over the first forty minutes of screen time, Arthur’s legend grows. He is “an abomination,” said to live “in a godforsaken place.” The townsfolk know him as a terror; the aborigines believe him to be a dog-man, a kind of werewolf. Even a seasoned bounty hunter repeats the rumors: “Some say he sleeps in caves like a beast, slumbers deep like the kraken.” So it is puzzling when we reach his remote hideout and find leather-bound books as well as bandoliers, printed pages pasted all over the rock walls, a loyal medicine woman, and the wild man himself exhorting his brother to “be humble of heart.” We sense that Arthur, gone native like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (one of his brutal myrmidons is an aborigine), is a man of extraordinary energies. He is moved almost to tears by a song, by a sunset. He rhapsodizes about love and family. Similarly, his young companion Samuel Stoat, a rapist and sadist, has an angelic singing voice. And yet they are every inch the menaces to society that Captain Stanley makes them out to be.

Charlie’s short-lived reintegration into his brother’s gang, after declining to shoot Arthur, leads inevitably to bloodshed. But there is something suggestive about the way in which Arthur, in the wilderness, is refined, while in society he is barbarous, as though, sufficient to himself in solitude, with his poetry and purported theriomorphic powers, he is (in Aristotelian terms) both beast and god. The setting sun, casting the desolate landscape in gold, moves Arthur to a remarkable peroration: “You can never get your fill of nature, Samuel. To be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart. The mountains, the trees, the endless plains, the moon, the myriad of stars. Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners.”

As rain falls on all of us, so beauty makes to the just and unjust alike its perpetual appeal. What T. S. Eliot called the “hints and guesses” of temporal beauty are not lost on Arthur, but he winds up spurning his finer feelings in favor of revenge and rapine. At once a natural aristocrat and a ruthless gang leader, he has no place in the middle-class project of Captain and Martha Stanley (with their lovingly decorated Christmas tree and artificial snow) and of the foppish colonial grandee Eden Fletcher. It is the ironically named Eden who orders Mikey Burns lashed in public, against Stanley’s wishes, and so brings down on the decent captain and his wife a shocking retribution. There is more to be said than I can include here about the symbolism of Christmas in the film, the fact that Mikey’s sentence of one hundred lashes is cut short at the Christological number of thirty-nine, or the plague of flies that descends on the sweating spectators like a cloak of guilt.

A few words on guilt, however, for it is the dominant emotion of the film. Stanley offers Charlie “the chance to expunge the guilt beneath which you so clearly labor.” Early on, we see the outlaw ride up to the burned hulk of the Hopkins homestead. White crosses mark three graves. There is remorse in his haunted eyes, in his funereal pace, in the apologetic gesture of removing his hat before entering the wrecked domicile. When Charlie draws down on Arthur, we are to understand—Cave’s shooting script makes it explicit—that Charlie has pointed a gun at his elder brother before, at the Hopkins place, but was unable either to make him halt his atrocities or to put an end to the grisly business himself.

Fans of the Western genre are accustomed to seeing the tragic hero, his extraordinary deeds done, become superfluous in the society he saved: Alan Ladd riding off at the end of Shane, John Wayne in The Searchers retreating from the doorway of the family home that he will not enter again. “There’s no living with the killing,” as Shane says, and Arthur (though not a hero of any sort) on some level knows this is true. “No more,” Charlie tells him in the end, and is met with quiet, if wounded, acceptance. It is a theme worthy of Dostoevsky: the killer who wants to be stopped, whose own better nature condemns him. Against this bad man with a gun there is no white-hatted challenger, only another bad man with a gun, a man just beginning to be reformed; a man who—though, being Irish, he too is out of place in the starched world of English sitting rooms—is sick of slaughter. A man who, in the end, studying the varicolored striations of another immense Australian sunset, is truly his brother’s keeper.

Brian Patrick Eha is a widely published essayist and journalist.

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Image by Corey Leopold licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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