The Proposition

The sound of buzzing flies can be heard in almost every scene in “The Proposition,” an earthy, dust-colored Western set in the Australian frontier circa 1880. Even the outback’s more civilized outposts — the nice houses with lace curtains belonging to British officers’ wives — are beset with it. Grime, disease and death are everywhere.

This violent anti-violence tale, written by gloom-rocker Nick Cave and directed by music-video veteran John Hillcoat, explores the gap between society and savagery with a story that’s straight out of the Old West: A man is told that to save one brother’s life, he must kill the other one.

The brothers in question are the Burns boys, all outlaws and apparently responsible for a vicious rape and murder that took place not long ago. Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his brother Mike (Richard Wilson) have been captured by Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone), a British commander who seeks to tame this brutal, anarchic land, and Stanley makes the devilish deal with Charlie. Either he find and kill his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), believed to be the ringleader, or Mike — who is younger and mentally slow — will be hanged.

So Charlie is set free and given nine days to comply, while Mike, bewildered and delirious, languishes in a cell. Charlie doesn’t make his intentions known, not to us and certainly not to Stanley, but he does set out in search of Arthur, who turns out to be living in the middle of nowhere with a small posse of devoted followers.

Back in the settlement, Stanley is trying to shield his wife Martha (Emily Watson) from the violence of the land, including his own. She insists she should not be protected, but she probably underestimates just how bad it is out there. She keeps a garden in the middle of this wasteland, a desperate attempt to bring prim English loveliness to the colony, and you get a sense of how frightened and sad she must be, having uprooted herself and moved to this place with her husband.

The film sets up all these dichotomies — Wild West vs. civilization, family loyalty vs. survival instinct, letter of the law vs. the spirit of it — and lets us struggle along with the characters for answers, culminating in a suspenseful and bloody finale. Charlie and Arthur arrive at an impasse in their relationship, while Capt. Stanley grapples with his superior, Fletcher (David Wenham), a prim, snooty man who sees no reason to honor Stanley’s deal with the Burns boys. Is blood thicker than water? Does a gentlemen’s agreement mean anything in this lawless territory?

It’s surprising that a film this unflinchingly violent can be so thought-provoking, and that the performances are as fine-tuned as they are. From Guy Pearce’s conflicted outlaw, to Ray Winstone’s multi-layered peace-keeper, to John Hurt’s scene-stealing drunken old Englishman, every member of the ensemble contributes. But while I have no doubt the movie wants to be taken seriously, there are times when the gore seems over-the-top, like a grossly comic slasher flick, and I think: Was that supposed to shock me, or entertain me? Either guess as to Cave and Hillcoat’s intentions could be right, and that’s part of what makes the film so troubling.

Note: The movie begins with a warning that some indigenous peoples may find the film offensive, as it contains images of people who are now deceased. Why that would offend someone, while the graphic violence that permeates the film would not, is perhaps one of the reasons I did not become an anthropologist.

B (1 hr., 44 min.; R, a lot of graphic violence, brief nudity, a lot of harsh profanity.)