I saw "The Proposition" last night. All the reviews I've read stress how violent the movie is, and they are completely right to do so. It's not just violent (especially not in the arch, violent-in-quotes way that most action movies are), it's brutal. There were several scenes that made me grit my teeth and squint. There were several others where a good portion of the audience inhaled sharply. The sound effects alone are severely repellent in several scenes. It's a disturbing movie. And it's also really, really smart, and very good. Roger Ebert compared it on his show to "Blood Meridian," Cormac McCarthy's excellent and grotesque novel about, to quote the succinct Amazon review, "bounty hunters for Indian scalps near the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s." While "The Proposition" takes place in Australia, it inhabits the same moral universe as McCarthy's book. Life is nasty, brutal, and short.
But where the oft-quoted Hobbes had at least a minimal faith in the ability of government to make life better, "Blood Meridan" and "The Proposition" have none. It's one of the basic tenets of Post-Colonial thought that in colonizing, whatever "moral authority" a liberal, democratic nation has at home is lost. Basically, you can have universal suffrage and freedom of the press, but when you try to take it on the road, you're going to wind up with blood on your hands; your freedoms at home become empty shells when you violate them overseas. Literature has been telling us this since at least "Heart of Darkness," (hell, "Candide" satirized this impulse - among other things - a hundred-plus years before Conrad.), and yet we can always use another lesson. There's a wonderful exchange between two characters (The names are elided as it may lead you to figure out something minimally spoiler-ish.):
1: They're hanging Mikey come Christmas.
2: When's Christmas?
I think it's a brilliant bit of writing. The fact that the government is going to hang someone on Christmas (take that, Prince of Peace!) is telling, and the idea that one could lose track of when Christmas is is amazing. But this little exchange also highlights what some see as a problem of the movie. Written by Nick Cave, it's more than a little portentous, but, to me, it's the sort of movie that makes a virtue of being un-subtle. Everything is graphic, everything is overblown, everything is "about" something. When I was completely submerged in this grandiose storytelling mode, I lost myself in the film's repugnant worldview. I've read reviews that put this film in the same area as "Unforgiven." That, to me, couldn't be more wrong-headed. In "Unforgiven" every hooker comes complete with a heart of gold, and there are no bad people, only badasses. Here, even the shopkeepers are capable of evil...or at least capable of being complacent in the face of it. There's no joy (shameful or otherwise) in the killings in "The Proposition," and no one to root for, either. There's only disgust at the violent, miserable state of the world. Captain Stanley, played by Ray Winstone with an odd, affecting softness to him, says at the beginning, "I will civilize this land," and it sounds like a boastful imperial promise. A few minutes later he repeats it, and it sounds hollow. It's meaningless and impossible; it's a worthless notion, and he knows it. A civilization that arises from such misery is tainted at birth, by being born.