The Western originated as an all-American genre, but the brutal new film The Proposition persuasively stakes a claim that it belongs Down Under. The pitiless, almost prehistoric Australian landscape perfectly suits the Western's conflicting archetypes of wilderness vs. civilization. And while we in the United States make folk heroes out of gunslingers like Jesse James, Australia took a song about an outlaw, "Waltzing Matilda," and turned it into its national anthem.
The Proposition offers no comforting cowboy story but a brutal, borderline-surreal tale of a nation baptized in blood. The Proposition's powerful, haunting imagery echoes the revisionist Westerns of director Sam Peckinpah and novelist Cormac McCarthy, but the script, written by singer/songwriter Nick Cave, doesn't always flesh out its powerful notions.
An elegiac song plays over the opening credits as still photos document 19th-century Australia settlements as well as "the Hopkins outrage," the massacre of one family. The seemingly nostalgic, dusty introduction sets viewers up for an ambush: The film's first scenes explode. We find ourselves in the middle of a shoot-out at a desert brothel, although that word seems a little grand for a sheet-metal shack containing a couple of prostitutes and their johns. Tough Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his naive younger brother, Mike (Richard Wilson), blaze away at unseen assailants.
The smoke clears to find the brothers arrested by Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), a middle-of-nowhere authority figure. Stanley sadistically gives Charlie the proposition referred to in the title: He will execute Mike on Christmas Day unless Charlie captures or kills their older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), perpetrator of the Hopkins murderers. (The extent of Charlie and Mike's involvement in the massacre is a little fuzzy.)
"I will civilize this land," Stanley declares, underscoring the notion of barbaric deeds in the name of "progress." While Charlie rides off to find Arthur, Stanley's stature in town proves less formidable than it first appears. Despite the demand for harsh discipline from an icy official (David Wenham), Stanley balks at his propensity for bloodshed and tries to protect his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), from the harshness of his frontier life. Martha domesticates their home with red roses and a white picket fence worthy of an American suburb, but she seems subconsciously aware of impending doom. Watson's eyes radiate a kind of hysterical misery: Even when she's outwardly calm and still, Martha seems to be on the verge of losing it.
Beneath a beard that evokes Clint Eastwood's the Man With No Name, Charlie rides out to find Arthur, who resides untouchably in labyrinthine caves (not unlike the mythos of Osama bin Laden). Vaguely defined mysticism surrounds Arthur, and when the brothers meet, The Proposition enters a slump and rouses itself only with difficulty. Despite Pearce's coiled intensity as an actor, Charlie comes across as less a conflicted hero than a passive protagonist.
If you didn't know that Nick Cave has enjoyed a long, storied career as a rock performer, you still might guess that a songwriter wrote The Proposition. It's not a musical, but songs and poetry provide a kind of connective tissue to the episodes. Arthur's gang includes a young, Billy-the-Kid-type psycho who can sing like an angel, and at times the filmmakers seem more interested in showcasing the delicate score and ruminative verse than constructing a compelling plot.
Music video director John Hillcoat shows a painterly eye for splashy details, particularly such gruesome ones as the blood squeezed out of a cat-o-nine tails. Violence intrudes from nowhere -- at one point Charlie awakens in the wilderness, prepares to mount his horse, and suddenly a spear penetrates his chest. The white characters frequently inflict brutality upon the Aboriginal ones, finding a parallel to the United States' treatment of slaves and Native Americans.
The Proposition seems to contain as many flies as all the other Westerns put together. It may not measure up to masterpieces on a par with Peckinpah or Sergio Leone's six-gun epics, but The Proposition boldly seizes the genre in the name of Australia. It won't give up the Western without a fight.
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