John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” is the kind of gritty, tormented, fly-infested Western that feels almost quaint in this pre-sold era of slasher flicks and blockbuster remakes. Never mind that it takes place in Australia — this is a ferocious piece of genre filmmaking that reminds us all frontiers are tamed at a cost.
To that end, screenwriter/ composer Nick Cave has borrowed liberally — and effectively — from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Set in the 1880s at the end of the Australian “bush-ranger” era, the movie begins with a spectacular barrage of gunfire in a ramshackle farmhouse deep in the Outback. By the time the dust settles, notorious criminal Charlie Burns (played by a disheveled, dingo-thin Guy Pearce) is in the custody of Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone from “Sexy Beast”), a principled but ruthless lawman determined to civilize the hinterlands.
Charlie’s capture is incidental; Stanley’s real prize is the eldest Burns brother, Arthur (Danny Huston, excellent), a charismatic scofflaw and killer who, like Conrad’s Kurtz, lives in a remote wilderness redoubt and is revered as a godlike madman by the aborigines. Stanley proposes a deal: If Charlie tracks down his “evil monster” of a brother and kills him, Stanley will spare the life of the youngest Burns sibling, a blubbering simpleton due to hang on Christmas Day.
Reluctantly, Charlie embarks on his terrible mission, torn between fraternal loyalties, knowing first-hand that Arthur is every bit the diseased cur that Stanley portrays him to be. Meanwhile, Stanley tries valiantly but vainly to shield his proper English wife (Emily Watson) from the unsavory particulars of his job while keeping the town’s bloodthirsty rabble away from the young idiot in his jailhouse. David Wenham, one of the unsung heroes of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, is a hoot as Fletcher, a fatuous, cowardly puppet of a politician who wants to hand the youngest Burns boy over to the mob.
In the midst of a blazing Down Under summer, the characters in “The Proposition” are constantly, futilely shooing flies off their bodies; one imagines they’re also trying to shoo away the collective sense that they’re even more savage than the dark-skinned primitives victimized by their continental land-grab. (John Hurt is priceless as a gone-to-seed bounty hunter who hangs out on the fringes of Arthur’s death cult.)
Music video veteran Hillcoat conveys this distinctly Conrad-ian horror without making it archly political, and Cave — as composer — delivers a baleful, guitarfeedback score that cascades excitingly over the hot, desolate landscape.
More surprising is the pitiless, existential power of Cave’s script. While his music (with both The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) has always been dark and brooding, who knew he could undertake such a grim journey on the big screen?
Starring: Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, Ray Winstone, John Hurt
Rating: R (strong grisly violence and profanity)
Running time: 104 minutes
Playing: Now showing in Valley theaters