The Proposition 

(R) 3.5 stars 

The Proposition is a big, mean western set in the Australian frontier of the 1880s. We’re talking revisionist western, of course, where everything is hot and dusty and fly-ridden, where people are either nasty or naïve or doomed, where you know from the beginning that the best laid plans will most certainly blow up in the faces of the fools that devised them. 

You would think that such unrelenting misery would be off-putting, but there is something oddly invigorating about watching a tragic tale on such a broad, bleak stage. I wouldn’t want to see stuff like this on a regular basis, but The Proposition is a bracing change of pace.

Nick Cave wrote the story, which should explain a lot. For those unfamiliar with the name, Nick Cave is an Aussie musician who rose to fame in the 1980s with his band, The Bad Seeds. Cage writes richly textured, dark songs about death and despair mostly, made all the more gloomy by his deep voice. I can’t listen to Cave very often — too depressing and disquieting — but once in a while …

The Proposition opens with a furious gunfight between the law and Irish brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) Burns, who are wanted for the murder of a pregnant woman. Following their capture, Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone), an Englishman determined to “tame this land,” offers a proposal to Charlie.

Seems that, despite their horrendous acts, Charlie and Mike are the lesser of three evils. Their older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) has become something of a legend. His status has grown to the point that some Aboriginal locals attribute him with supernatural abilities. Capt. Stanley wants Arthur so bad that he promises to spare Charlie and Mike from the gallows if Charlie finds, and kills, his older brother.

Charlie agrees — what else can he do — and sets out to track down Arthur, who is holed up in an area where the conditions are so harsh that even Aboriginal deputy Jacko (David Gulpilil) will not go. Along the way, he meets Jellon Lamb (John Hurt), a bounty hunter with a flair for the dramatic. “I came to this beleaguered land and the god in me evaporated,” he tells Charlie.
Back in town, Capt. Stanley tries to keep it together. The townsfolk, in an uproar about the crime, are not at all happy with the way the case has been handled. Town boss Fletcher (David Wenham) is among those who disapprove, and the man has clout. But Capt. Stanley keeps up a brave front, especially in front of his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), a woman who seems far too refined for the frontier.

The film cuts back and forth between Charlie and Capt. Stanley. Will Charlie be able to accomplish his grim task? Can Capt. Stanley maintain his authority against his ever more vocal opponents? Oh sure, all hell is going to break loose, but how? And by the way, how odd, sweet and pathetic is it to watch Capt. Stanley and Martha try to celebrate a traditional English Christmas in the middle of the madness? 

Director John Hillcoat keeps the proceedings taut without resorting to cheap tricks. The bleak, gorgeous vistas accent the story nicely, as does the music, by Cave and Warren Ellis. The cast is spot-on-the-money throughout. Citing any one actor for special praise would be unfair to the rest.

The Proposition is full of anger, overt bigotry and violence. It is a well-told tale that presents people at their worst and still manages to find a sense of lyricism. Nice accomplishment, that.

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