P.O.V. No.24 - The Western

The Mercy Seat as Inescapable Heat
- The Proposition and Ideas of Justice in the Australian Outback

Henrik Bødker
It began when they come took me from my home
And put me in Dead Row,
Of which I am nearly wholly innocent, you know.
And I'll say it again
I... am ... not ... afraid ... to ... die.
In Heaven His throne is made of gold
The ark of his Testament is stowed
A throne from which I'm told
All history does unfold.
Down here it's made of wood and wire
And my body is on fire
And God is never far away.
And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I'm yearning
To be done with all this measuring of truth.
An eye for an eye
And a truth for a truth
And anyway I told the truth
But I'm afraid I told a lie.
1st, middle and last verse of
Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat," Tender Prey, 1988

The protagonist of The Mercy Seat embodies the struggle that is at the centre of Nick Cave's song-writing and musical universe, namely a constant warring with the darker sides of being human, and subsequent issues of guilt, truth, justice and redemption. [1] But although "God is never far away," this is a moral battle, or predicament, which the individual must fight alone and from which death is an alluring release - "[a]nd in a way I'm yearning/to be done with all this measuring of truth." Nick Cave's universe is, on the other hand, also full of intensity, humor, beauty and love, and it is this mixture of the fatal and the beautiful, or perhaps, the fatality beautiful, that has secured Nick Cave and his band The Bad Seeds a steady following. And it is also this mix, as well as its ensuing moral issues, that Cave brought with him to "his original take on the western genre set in the sweaty, dusty Outback of Queensland, Australia in the 1880's," [2] namely The Proposition (2005) for which Cave wrote the screenplay and the music (together with Warren Ellis). [3]

That Cave should turn towards the Western genre seems in retrospect an obvious move. Cave grew up in Wangaratta, less than fifteen miles from Glenrowan, which, according to biographer Ian Johnston, "is shrouded in the legends surrounding the final stand of one of Australia's most enduring folk heroes, 'the last bushranger,' Ned Kelly," of whom the young Nick Cave was very much enamoured." [4] Ned Kelly has obviously also made it to the movies and in a 1970-release, the hero is in fact played by Mick Jagger. One could indeed make a number of interesting parallels between the mythologies of the West and those of rock music. Cave's fundamental connection to the western genre comes, however, not merely from his being related to a specific genre of popular music but rather through the issues dominating his universe. Seen from this perspective the western seeks out more or less metaphorical times and locations in order to treat issues of individual responsibility, community and justice. By peeling away, or reducing, the material and societal layers of (Western) civilization, we can more openly be confronted with that which lies beyond, and/or deep within, ourselves and our value systems.

A focus on frontier justice is in a sense an economical way to deal with what it means to be human in a complex world (although all Westerns cannot be said to have fulfilled this potential). Part of this economy is, as already hinted at, connected to images, and although the Western is not dependent on a specific location it is highly dependent on specific types of landscape through which moral and societal issues can be given a tinge of the primordial. What Jean Baudrillard writes in a rather grand interpretation of America could, if not applied to the Western genre as such then at least to The Proposition: "Culture, politics - and sexuality too - are seen exclusively in terms of the desert, which here assumes the status of the primal scene." [5] Contrary to other Westerns in which land is something fought over the natural environment in The Proposition is something fought with, a place where (Western) people in a sense are not meant to be, but which they - through a mix of fate, attraction and human nature - cannot escape.

The Mercy Seat, the golden throne that is supposed to cover the Arc containing the Ten Commandments, and on/in which "God is never far away," is in The Proposition not "made of wood and wire" but simply consists of the heat, light, dust and flies making up the Australian outback. Thus, while the protagonist of the song is left to "measure the truth" in the electric chair, the main character of the film is caught in an inescapable moral ambiguity in the sweltering desert. Out here, one is left alone with both ambiguity and maker; this is, in other words, a great visual representation of the confrontation with the strong light or gaze of the "primal scene,"the inhospitable place that is the earth and human life also, and which can only be endured but never survived.

What may seem like a moral ambiguity is, however, rather a piece of complex frontier justice, namely the proposition given to the main character Charlie (Guy Pearce), one of three Irish outlaw brothers, and around which the film revolves. Sought for the slaying of a settler family, a crime they have or have not committed, Charlie, his younger brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) as well as some other outlaws are - in one of the opening scenes - holed up in a shack with some Asian prostitutes while engaged in a shoot-out with the police; and beams of light produced by the bullet-holes forebode justice in a different way than simply death.

Charlie and Mikey are caught by the police. They no longer ride with their older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), apparently the most ruthless of the three, and it is him that the police captain is really after. Captain Stanley, who is in charge of the operation, consequently "enforces" a proposition upon Charlie: the only way that he can prevent the hanging on Christmas Day of Mikey is to find Arthur and kill him.

No matter what, Charlie, sitting to the left in the frame above, is forced to inflict death on his own. This narrative premise is thus rather different from that of many Westerns where the order of a frontier community is to be restored through violent confrontations with unwanted evil elements. [6] And it is not a regenerative violence either, as Richard Slotkin has emphasized with regard to representations of violence on the American frontier, and which David M. Wrobel characterizes thus:

Slotkin's analysis revolves around the "regeneration through violence" theme: the civilized must themselves engage in acts of outright barbarism to defeat savage foes, and in doing so are spiritually regenerated. [7]

The slaying of a settler family is, apart from being a barbaric crime, an act slowing down the advance of Western civilization, an act so often in (early) American Westerns, attributed to indigenous people. In The Proposition such a crime - involving rape - is attributed to the Irish Burns gang. An Irishman is, however - according to one of the characters in the film, a bounty hunter brilliantly played by John Hurt - "nothing but a nigger turned inside out."

On both a real and metaphorical level this is Western civilization fighting with itself; and the unwanted element that Charlie is left to purge is of his own blood, and by implication part of his psyche. Seen in this light, regeneration is not possible. What we are confronted with in The Proposition is rather a line of people, most of whom are suffering in different ways (apart, perhaps, from Arthur - to whom I will return): the police captain Stanley is suffering from recurrent headaches and/or some unnamed occurrence in the past, as well as the problems stemming from a deep urge to "civilize this land;" his wife (played by Emily Watson) is suffering from her displacement from England; Mikey is suffering imprisonment and fear; and finally, Charlie is caught in a painful stretch between guilt, family love and justice. And Stanley's proposition is in itself the product of similar conundrums about justice: I will, Stanley says to Charlie in one of the opening scenes, "give you the chance to expunge the guilt beneath which you so clearly labour" while, as he says later to his wife, to impose his "idea of justice… for the town, for the country, for you, for you." The proposition Charlie is left with is indeed a fatal inescapability of choice, a sentence of purgatory, which no acts of violence can purge - only sustain; and it is with this predicament that we follow Charlie into the outback.

Obviously, Charlie cannot escape his situation and/or himself. By the end of the movie Mickey is dead from the flogging he received in prison (in order to satisfy the community's sense of justice) and Charlie shoots his brother Arthur as he and another gang member are engaged in a violent and sadistic punishment of Stanley and his wife (who is being raped as her severely mutilated husband is forced to watch). The last shot, however, shows us Charlie and Arthur - shot in the gut and gasping for air - sitting together against a setting sun in a landscape that plays a significant role in the film.

The landscapes of The Proposition is, as hinted at already, very different from the quintessential monumental backdrop often associated with the American Western where church-like rock formations reach majestically into the sky (as if to underscore the heroic and preordained nature, or manifest destiny, of the venture into the wilderness). The land of The Proposition is on more than one occasion called "Godforsaken," a 'situation' explained by the bounty hunter when asked by Charlie whether he prays: "I used to be a believer," he says, "but in this beleaguered land, the God just … evaporated in me." And there is indeed plenty of heat in The Proposition for evaporations of our Holy Spirits. The Australian desert is here thus not only landscape but Nature, our nature, in the sense of continuous decay, struggle and survival. "Australia - what fresh Hell is this?" exclaims Stanley when looking out the window at the shimmering silhouettes of his men digging; and the outback is somehow a perfect place for showing how we continuously seek to demarcate this (inner) "Hell" from our better selves. Houses are shown as insignificant bumps only occupying small parcels on the surface of something rather inhospitable. The most pointed example is here the police constable's small house surrounded by a patchy rose garden and a fence beyond which the land is untouched and desert-like.

The only ones at ease in the landscape are the aboriginals and the Burns gang, who occupy a gorge in the "Badlands" (where not even the "blacks" will go). Apart from the young and imbecile gang member Samuel (played by Tom Budge), Arthur is the only character taking pleasure in violence and apparently feeling no guilt. According to Stanley Arthur is a "monster," an "abomination" somehow connected to this "fresh Hell," a perception visibly underlined by Arthur's dark frame against the sky in our first sight of him.

Conventional justice will not do here. Apparently Stanley knows where Arthur is, and he is certain that the bounty hunter will get him eventually. That is, however, not enough. "I have other plans," says Stanley, and continues: "I aim to bring him down. I aim to show that he is a man like any other. I aim to hurt him." And the way to do just that, to show "he is a man like any other," is to make him suffer through love and family ties. Being shot by his brother will touch him.

Quite a few scenes show Arthur watching the sunset, and his association with the barren but beautiful landscape poignantly exposes contradictory facets of human nature: "You never get your fill of nature," he says to Samuel when contemplating the stars, and continues, "to be surrounded by it is to be stilled. It salves the heart. Every man can be made quiet and complete. Even the lowliest misanthrope or the most wretched of sinners." Is "that what we are, misanthropes," asks Samuel. "Good Lord no," Arthur replies, "we're family." All of us are together, and none of us can be sure to escape our evil selves. This comes out in a final beautiful symbolic sweep, which is not subtle but effective. When Arthur, after having been shot by Charlie, stumbles out of Stanley's house and staggers through the rose garden he crashes through the fence, leaving a bloody trail. As we had known all along, that fence is frail, and will be broken from time to time. This fence is, however, not simply a question of civilization, or of evolution, but rather of a line with which one constantly has to struggle. It is, as Cave's fellow traveller Johnny Cash sings, a matter of dealing with "The beast in me/[which] Is caged by frail and fragile bars/Restless by day/And by night rants and rages at the stars/God help the beast in me." [8] When Mikey is taken into the small town of Bayon after being taken by the police, we follow the drive into town from within the horse-drawn cage.

We are, Cave seems to say, sentenced to being (human). The ability to feel guilt, and thus to seek justice - as well as to sin - is something we must endure. This is, however, not only a bleak sentence; it also holds beauty and love - precisely as Cave's lyrics and music. A blog-entry put this rather well: "If you know his brilliant Murder Ballads album, you'll have a good idea of what this film feels like… Highly recommended if you're in the mood for something at once poetic and brutal." [9] This mood is what we are left in outside the broken fence where Charlie sits next to his dying brother. As this shows, there is plenty of story-telling potential in the genre aiming to catch the experiences out there where the sun is setting.

1 Given such a preoccupation, as well as a liking of American "roots"-music, it is no coincidence that Nick Cave and Johnny Cash felt connected somehow. Cash did a cover version of "The Mercy Seat" in 2000 (on American III: Solitary Man) and Cave appeared on American IV: The Man comes Around (2002).

2 Review by Avril Carruthers in Australias Online Movie Magazine

3 The film is directed by John Hillcoat and the cinematography is by Benoît Delhomme.

4 Ian Anderson, bad seed - the biography of Nick Cave (London: Abacus, 1995), p. 25.

5 Jean Baudrillard, America (London/New York: Verso, 1994 [1988]), p. 28.

6 To purge both means to get rid of unwanted people and to get rid of evil.

7 David M. Wrobel in a review of the last of Slotkin's frontier mythology in American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 3 (Jun., 1994), p. 989. The idea of regenerative violence was put forth by Slotkin in Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (New York: Atheneum, 1973).

8 The song appears on American IV: The Man comes Around (2002).

9 http://wemadethis.typepad.com/we_made_this/film/index.html


Baudrillard, Jean. America. London/New York: Verso, 1994 [1988]

Carruthers, Avril. "Australias Online Movie Magazine,"

Wrobel, David M. Review of the last publication in Richard Slotkin's triology, American Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 3 (June, 1994), pp. 989-990.

The Proposition. 2-disc special edition. Tartan DVD 2006.

to the top of the page