About every five years or so, Australia turns out a movie that feels made by cutting open the country’s veins and bleeding out something so pure, honest, and harsh that Australia itself, its land and spirit unlike any other in the world, is literally splashed across the big screen. Think Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Man From Snowy River, and, more recently, Rabbit-Proof Fence. The Proposition makes these all look sort of tame in comparison and, in the process, offers up the freshest take on the western since Unforgiven.
Set during the 1880s waning years of the bushranger—the Aussie outback outlaw—The Proposition is a blood-soaked, filthy, utterly elegant tale of loyalty, family, nature, and morality. It opens with brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) trapped in an aluminum-roofed brothel as a hail of police bullets turn the crudely made building into Swiss cheese. Charlie and Mikey soon find themselves facing Captain Stanley (the amazing Ray Winstone), who insists, “I will civilize this land.”
“This land” is a dust bowl filled with nothing except beautiful rock formations and even more beautiful sunsets. The men and women occupying it are grizzled, hard-edged, and violent—none so much so as the third Burns brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). Stanley calls Arthur an abomination and—despite the fact that Charlie and Mikey helped Arthur slaughter a family, even raping the pregnant mother—makes Charlie a proposition: kill Arthur in nine days, or the simple-minded Mikey will dangle from the gallows.
Written by Australian musician/icon Nick Cave, The Proposition was helmed by sophomore director John Hillcoat, who hasn’t directed a movie since 1988’s Ghosts . . . of the Civil Dead, another Cave script. Hillcoat’s relative inexperience is undetectable here, though. He gracefully nails the poetic dichotomy of Australia’s outback, a red-colored land that has evolved to kill everything in it, smothered beneath the oppressive and equally empty sky. It is a thing of beauty, too, which Arthur understands. In fact, he revels in its grandeur—part of it, in a way. Even the Aborigines who survive here have come to see this homicidal maniac as an atavistic force of nature that lives in caves and can turn into a dog. You see, if Arthur is the embodiment of the Australian outback, then Stanley is the foolish colonist who believes he can tame something Aborigines spent 30,000 years realizing couldn’t be.