John Hillcoat and Nick Cave conjure a western of seething biblical undercurrents, wavering violins, and dark, lyrical sensibility.
The concept of an 'Australian western' might sound odd, but the Outback offers a perfect sweltering backdrop for everything the genre holds dear. It lends The Proposition a tremendous sense of occasion. Coupled with the Aborigine disclaimer and the opening grab-you-by-the-throat gunfight, it forces you to sit up and take heed from the word go.
It's 1880, and the air is stiflingly thick with British colonialism. After capturing Irish bush-outlaws Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson) Burns, law enforcer Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) lays down a seemingly impossible ultimatum to Charlie: seek and kill older brother – psychopathic, murdering rapist Arthur (Danny Huston) – or else the younger, Mikey, will be executed. A dark night of the soul ensues for all concerned, marinated in much double-crossing and bucketloads of blood.
Given the seething biblical undercurrents, wavering violins, and dark, lyrical sensibility, it's hardly surprising that gothic-blues balladeer Nick Cave wrote the screenplay. Like Cave's music, and indeed the Outback itself, the action lurches from rugged romanticism to suffocating and visceral in a heartbeat.
Winstone's Captain Stanley provides the most complex example of such tender/brutal disparity – especially when comforted in the midst of the chaos by his wife, Martha (Emily Watson). Whilst the characterisation elsewhere is decent, the Burns brothers aren't nearly as well fleshed out as the ever-watchable Winstone.
Ostensibly this is a tale of retribution and family loyalty, but the startling poignancy of hearing 'Rule Britannia' following a massacre of 'renegade' Aborigines during the finale compels you to re-question the film's raison d'être. Is this really a meditation on frontier brutality, a historically significant and shocking snapshot of a repressed people?
Whatever the filmmaker's intention, the Aborigines are conspicuous by their (frequent) absence from the screen, which makes for an intriguing and unsettling subtext.
John Hillcoat looks to appropriate the most American of genre's for Australia.
A hit of sorts, but with an ending that will leave you questioning rather than satisfied.
You'll feel flea-bitten all the way home.