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The Proposition

Riveting, Near-Great Aussie Western

Singer, songwriter, musician, novelist, and now screenwriter: Nick Cave. With The Proposition an American Western transposed to the dry, barren landscape of 1880s Australia, writer/composer Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat (Ghosts... of the Civil Dead), have fashioned a grimly lyrical film, a meditation on violence, family, and civilization and its discontents. Austere, pessimistic, bleak, even nihilistic, The Proposition is also one of the most visually impressive films in recent memory, thanks to Benoît Delhomme's cinematography of the Australian Outback's natural beauty.

Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a British-born Army officer and chief law enforcer in the area, captures Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson) after a furious gun battle that leaves several people dead. Charlie and Mike are wanted for the massacre of a local family. Captain Stanley, however, has a different plan for Charlie, offering him the proposition of the title: a life for a life, his brother Mike's life for his older brother Arthur's (Danny Huston) life. As the brutal, sociopathic leader of the Burns gang, Arthur's reputation has grown to near-mythic levels (the local Aborigines refer to him as a dog-man).

Stanley gives Charlie a gun, a horse, and a deadline: nine days to kill Arthur (and presumably bring his body back to Stanley as evidence) or Mikey will hang. Stanley sees Arthur's death as a necessary step to "civilizing" the territory from lawlessness and unrestrained violence. Stanley finds respite from his duties with his fragile, traumatized wife, Martha (Emily Watson). Stanley and Martha have transformed their home into a facsimile of their home in England, complete with fine china, curtains, drapes, furniture, and bookcases. Martha also keeps up appearances, paying close attention to personal hygiene (a rarity in the outback).

As Charlie languidly makes his way across a bone-dry, near lifeless landscape toward Arthur and Arthur's gang, Stanley is forced to deal with a civilian official, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) who has even harsher ideas on how to deal with Mikey and the rebellious locals. Conflict is everywhere, as is deceit and betrayal. Stanley hopes to shield Martha from the effects of everyday violence, but ultimately can't (nor can he protect her from the crude attention of his men). Charlie hopes to save Mikey from a life of violence, but still harbors some affection for his older brother, who perversely reminds Charlie of the importance of family, love, and loyalty. The storylines eventually converge as Captain Stanley's deadline draws near and Charlie is forced to act against his brother.

Nick Cave has obviously studied the conventions of the American Western, drawing his inspiration from the films of John Ford, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, and Clint Eastwood. The outlaw Charlie, by turns taciturn, laconic, and driven by guilt to escape from his violent past and save his younger brother from following a similarly destructive path, is both character and archetype. As the self-described bringer of Western "civilization" to the barbaric outback, Stanley closely parallels the Little Bill (Gene Hackman) character from Eastwood's Unforgiven. The Aborigines are stand-ins for Native Americans (they're also referred to as "Blacks" by the colonials) and the frontier town that Stanley runs a mirror image of similar towns found in American Westerns. That's not to suggest, however, that The Proposition is simply an exercise in style or imitation. It's far more than that.

Violence is woven into the fabric of life in 1880s Australia, with morality sacrificed for order and vengeance. The focus in The Proposition is squarely on the realistic depiction of violence, its suddenness, its dehumanizing effects on victim and perpetrator, and, often, its finality. Unlike, say a Peckinpah-directed Western, most of the violence in this film occurs offscreen (with one or two exceptions). Still, Cave and Hillcoat certainly don't shy away from depicting spearings, shootings, stabbings, a flogging, and two decapitations. That The Proposition ends in bloody retribution isn't surprising.

Equally unsurprising, but no less poignant is where Cave and Hillcoat leaves their tortured protagonist. Like the central character in John Ford's The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), Charlie's resort to violence seems to preclude him from rejoining "civilized" society. It's an ending that might leave some viewers unsatisfied, but it's nonetheless fitting for what just might be a genre classic in the making.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars