The revisionist Western rides into the 1880s Australian outback, in “The Proposition.” Toplining Guy Pearce as an outlaw whose sins will be pardoned if he kills his brother, pic’s nihilism places it in the genre’s “Deadwood” corral. Though its unremittingly bleak tone and bouts of graphic violence make B.O. paydirt unlikely, this robust Oz-U.K. co-production scripted by rock figure Nick Cave should find hitching posts in numerous frontiers. Following its Toronto festival world preem, film opens Down Under Oct. 6.
First feature by helmer John Hillcoat since the misfired jungle meller, “To Have and to Hold” (1996), is a return to the muscular form of his locally praised debut, “Ghosts … of the Civil Dead” (1988). Collaborators on both those films, Hillcoat and Cave have here found their most fertile ground yet for allegory-rich examinations of life and death in remote, pressure-cooker environments.
Pic lets bullets do the talking in a furious opening shootout between police and outlaws Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and brother Mike (Richard Wilson), who surrender to Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone), an Englishman on a mission to “tame this land.” But Charlie and Mike are only two-thirds of an Irish family wanted for the murder of a pregnant woman. The trophy catch is eldest brother Arthur Burns (Danny Huston), a psychotic, almost mythic figure holed up in a region so forbidding even Aboriginal deputy Jacko (David Gulpilil) won’t enter.
Stanley’s proposition to Charlie is simple. To save himself and Mike from the noose, he must track and kill his older brother. With no choice, Charlie accedes, and starts asking questions at resting posts populated exclusively by miscreants and intruders.
Thesp John Hurt seizes the moment memorably in the juicy role of one lowlife, Jellon Lamb, a weather-beaten bounty hunter who tells Charlie, “I came to this beleaguered land and the god in me evaporated.”
Charlie succeeds in locating Arthur at the film’s halfway mark, but finding the will to eliminate his charismatic and dominant older brother is another matter. Aside from occasional moments of murky philosophizing between the two, the big question of whether he’ll kill Arthur is suspensefully intercut with the proposition as it affects Stanley. His gamble has stirred discontent in constabulary ranks and triggered the dangerous disapproval of above-the-law town boss Fletcher (David Wenham), a supercilious proponent of Aboriginal extermination and lynch-mob justice.
Stanley’s most pressing concern is for the safety of his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who’s attracting stares and whispers in the wake of Fletcher’s rabble-rousing and his undermining of her husband’s authority. These forebodings are contrasted with tender scenes in which Stanley and Martha play-act as Cockney types and prepare to celebrate a traditional European Christmas in stifling summer heat.
Underpinned by commentary on precisely this kind of disharmony between white settlers and the places they are determined to inhabit (however incongruously), Cave’s script moves stealthily toward a ferocious finale at the Stanley household that doesn’t disappoint in its settling of all outstanding scores.
Performances, right down to mangy-looking bit-parters, are exemplary. Both Winstone and a poised Watson are spot-on as square pegs in a dangerously round colonial hole. Pearce expertly seeds Charlie’s steely countenance with pangs of conscience that provide auds with a lifeline for emotional investment. Huston shrewdly underplays the dominant heavy.
Acknowledging genre forbears from classical American to Euro varieties, pic is slave to none. Production design, costuming and d.p. Benoit Delhomme’s non-travelogue widescreen compositions unite in birthing the first genuine, blood-and-thunder Aussie Western. Effective score by Cave and Warren Ellis is a tingly mix of strings and percussive jabs.