There's the Far West, and then there's the Even Farther West - Australia, the Land Down Under, the Fatal Shore, where England sent her refuse to rot in the blistering sun. Our own settling of our own frontier has gotten the full mythic treatment over the years, but Australia's history is still raw, like an open wound. When you poke it with a stick, it all but cries out in pain. And The Proposition is one very sharp stick indeed. Set in the 1880s, when those making the laws and those breaking the laws were little more than rival gangs, this transplanted, revisionist Western packs a Peckinpah punch, erupting into violence so savage you have to wonder whether the place will ever clean up its act. Does civilization have a chance against such barbarity?
The Proposition isn't the first Western to ask that question, of course, but its answer has a bloody poetry all its own. We open with a shootout, the bullet holes piercing a cabin's interior with shafts of redemptive light. Two of the Burns brothers (who make the James Gang look like the Vienna Boys Choir) are taken into custody. And one of them, Charlie (Guy Pearce), is offered a deal: If he finds and kills his older brother, Arthur (Danny Houston), then his younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), will be spared a date with the hangman's noose. It's like the story of Cain and Abel, only darker, murkier. And the fact that Charlie is so hard to read, Pearce holding his cards close to his bony chest, makes it even darker, murkier. Tall, gaunt, filthy, inscrutable - think of Charlie as the Man With No Name, only with a name.
Anyway, off he rides, leaving behind the man who put forth "the proposition." Captain Stanley (Sexy Beast's Ray Winstone) is one of those ends-justify-the-means kind of lawmen, but he has a real hankering for the fruits of civilization, as exemplified by his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who's like a breath of cool, wet English air in this infernal outback. "I will civilize this place," the captain says on more than one occasion, the "or else" implied. In The Proposition, the refined are more than a little depraved, and the depraved are more than a little refined. When at last we meet the eldest Burns, who combines the haziness of Colonel Kurtz with the craziness of Charles Manson (or is it the other way around?), he seems like the most refined of them all, with a visionary's thirst for life's deepest meanings. Then he pulls out his knife and goes to work.
Like Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, which turned the American West into a painting by William Blake, The Proposition seems just weird enough to be true. And there's an air of historical authenticity, what with all that greasy, stringy hair. But the nitty-grittiness is really a launching pad for rhetorical flights of fancy. When John Hurt shows up as a drunkenly pontificating bounty hunter who can quote Darwin's Origin of Species chapter and verse, it seems a bit much. But he's rather quickly disposed of, and those drunken pontifications, courtesy of scriptwriter Nick Cave (who also wrote the score), have the desiccated sweetness of dried flowers. Movies like The Proposition can go wrong in any number of ways. But director John Hillcoat manages to keep it all under control until the final drop of blood has paid tribute to Australia's murderous past.