Monday, September 13, 2010

The Proposition -- brutal and depraved civilization

Director: John Hillcoat, 2005. (R)

The Proposition presents a number of moral dilemmas for the chief characters in this Australian Western set in the late nineteenth century. Like the American Wild West, life is brutal and at times barbaric, with swift violence. Lawlessness prevails, despite the presence of lawmen.

The movie begins with a shootout between the police and two members of the Burns gang, trapped in a cabin. When the smoke settles and the bodies lay fallen, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, Memento), and his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) are handcuffed and facing Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). The Burns gang have raped and killed the Hopkins family, and Stanley wants justice. He will hang these two, but, it is the leader, Arthur (Danny Huston), that Stanley really wants. And he is in hiding in the outback. Within minutes of the introduction, Stanley presents his proposition:
I wish to present you with a proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a God-forsaken place. The blacks won't go there, not the tracks; not even wild men. I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans, I aim to bring him down - I aim to show that he's a man like any other. I aim to hurt him. . . . Now suppose I told there was a way to save your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse, and a gun. Suppose Mr. Burns, I was to give you and your young brother Mikey here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you a chance to expunge the guilt, beneath which you so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you 'til Christmas. 
He wants Charley to kill Arthur. One Burns brother will die: either Mikey by the judge's noose or Arthur by his brother's gun.

This in itself is a marvelous moral dilemma. What should Charlie do? Should he save Mikey by killing Arthur? Taking an active role he can accomplish this. Or should he be passive, and leave on horseback and do nothing? This would leave Mikey hanging by his neck but cause no guilt of murder to fall on him. That is Charlie's problem, and Hillcoat plays out the plot to a surprising and beautiful but brutal ending.

Of course no killing will expunge the guilt of prior murder, except it be the killing of Christ. The death of Jesus on the cross provide an atoning sacrifice (1 Jn. 2:2) expunging the guilt of all the sins of all the people, past, present and future. We cannot accomplish self-atonement and self-expungement. All we can do is accept Christ's sacrifice for us by faith (Eph. 2:8) and trust in his forgiveness, regardless of our background. Like Charlie and Mikey, we may have hideous sins. even crimes, in our past but we can turn away from them, as they turned away from Arthur and their other violent brother.

The outback of Australia features like a character. Hillcoat, who directed The Road, photographs its barren beauty and surrounds it with a mysterious and poetic score that emphasizes its wildness. Several times characters sit and marvel at the sunrise or sunset, seeing the wonder and peace of nature in contrast to the violence and inhumanity of man.

One of the keys to the movie comes in the form of Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a sophisticated but drunk bounty hunter on the trail of the Burns brothers. Speaking to Charley in an empty tavern, Lamb says: "We are white men, sir, not beasts." And in another scene, Stanley proclaims, "I will civilize this land."

Hillcoat is challenging the premise of white civilization. We see the black aborigines treated like dogs. They are a little above beasts but not by much. And Stanley, his boss, and Lamb all see themselves as civilized, bringing law and order to a lawless land. But how civilized are they really? And how bad are the Burns gang?

Winstone brings depth to Stanley, a man who wants to be civil but has to offer an immoral proposition to bring civilization to his territory. At home, he acts like a gentleman with his wife Martha (Emily Watson). Together, they are genteel. At work, he rolls up his sleeve to do his dirty work.

A critical scene undercuts this veneer of civilization. When his superior demands a flogging for Mikey, Stanley, seemingly the antagonist in the story, turns good and shows his moral fiber. He refuses to order the flogging. But with the citizens of the town watching, Martha's arrival to witness the "execution of justice" forces Stanley to step back and allow it to happen. One hundred lashes is the immediate punishment. But after less than a third of this, the inhumanity is obvious. Mikey's back is tenderized meat, dripping blood as he dangles from the flogging post. All but the flogger have turned away. Martha has fainted. This is not civilized punishment. It is torture.

This scene, reminiscent of Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ highlights the moral depravity of man even as some good remains. The so-called civil residents hungered for blood. The punishment was cruel. Blood-lust won out. The Bible says "There is no one righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). It also points out, "The heart is deceitful above all things" (Jer. 17:9). We all bear within the fruit of the fall, wherein we lean toward evil. We can hide behind a mask of civility but that mask is easily torn away. Yet, there remains a spark of goodness; the image of God within is not fully destroyed (1 Cor. 11:7; Jas. 3:9). Most of us cannot tolerate true evil and cruelty and have to turn away, like these townsfolk, when it becomes deplorable.

We are above the beasts, but we are not truly civilized. True civilization requires salvation and redemption. That can only come from without, from Christ (Eph. 1:7). Christ creates in us a new nature; we are a new civil creation (2 Coer. 5:17).

Hillcoat further blurs the lines between good and bad in Arthur Burns. He is truly an evil man, who hurts and kills on a whim, yet when riding gives insight into his inner nature: "He's right, Samuel. A misanthrope is one who hates humanity." Then, when asked if his gang are misanthropes, he replies, "Good lord no. We're a family." He goes on, "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 can be more hollow than to die alone, unloved?" He has "civilized" values even for a murderer.

Arthur has it right, even with his warped beliefs and behaviors. Love is fundamental. We all need and crave love. That is because we are made in God's image (Gen. 1:26) and desire relationship. God is the ultimate source of love, being in essence love itself (1 Jn. 4:16). We usually find love in our family, a representation of the love we will experience in God's family when we follow Jesus and become children of God (Gal. 3:26). Yet, in our depravity we turn our back on God, and like Jellon Lamb claim that he is "the God who has forgotten us." Nothing can be further from the truth.

The Proposition reminded me of Clint Eastwood, the king of spaghetti westerns (and Hollywood westerns a couple of times). Guy Pearce is photographed in several scenes from angles that cause him to resemble the "man with no name" from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Further, the moral theme and the darkness of all the characters bring to mind Eastwood's Oscar winner, Unforgiven.

Ultimately, The Proposition will not be for all viewers. The sudden and shocking violence of several scenes will put off those with weak stomachs. But its message is brutally true: we are all capable of the most inhuman of acts. And at the same time, we have the capability to appreciate and embrace the beauty and wonder of nature. Such dichotomy can only be reconciled by love, as we embrace the author of love and the creator of the world.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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