The Proposition, a western set in Australia, starts by dropping us in the middle of a gun battle. We don't know who's shooting who, or why ... just that we're with some imperiled people inside a rude wooden structure that's rapidly getting ventilated by rounds of fire.
The fusillade of pings, whines and clanks is harrowing. It's also exciting ... almost too exciting for a film that's ultimately about such somber matters as justice, conscience and family. But it's apt that our first glimpse of the hero, Charlie Burns, catches him trying to shoot his way out of a box.
Charlie (Guy Pearce) is one of a group of immigrant Irish brothers on the late-19th-century Australian range who make do as outlaws. The shootout follows an atrocity ... the brutal murder of a frontier family led by his older brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). Charlie and his slow-witted younger brother, Mikey, are captured by a Capt. Stanley, who makes Charlie a deal: Find and kill the fugitive Arthur, or see Mikey hung on Christmas, nine days hence.
But if The Proposition is on one level a credible action drama about a manhunt, and vengeance, it's also more. Directed by John Hillcoat from a screenplay by cult-favorite Aussie rocker and writer Nick Cave (who also oversaw the unsurprisingly excellent soundtrack), it's nearly as concerned with the absurdity of colonialism as with frontier justice and the sorrows of blood loyalty.
Indeed, the opening scene's death-trap shack is quickly placed in context: there's the boundless Australian range where Charlie sets to tracking his brother; the tiny clapboard towns Anglo settlers have raised there; the open-air cell where Mikey is terrorized by thuggish soldiers. Meanwhile, in the outback, Aboriginals hunt game ... and intruders ... with wooden spears. While some natives rebel against colonial rule, others are cops, and still others are servants incongruously clad in rough Victorian cotton.
The lines of tension intersect most clearly in Capt. Stanley, whose motto is "I will civilize this place." As played by the fine Ray Winstone, he's a beefy sort, whom duty's stress has rendered stiff as a plank. He takes comfort in his sweet, sheltered wife, Martha (Emily Watson). But Proposition makes clear that Martha's world of parasols, china egg cups and tiny imported Christmas trees is the anomaly, next to both the frontier's rotgut and the ceaseless hum of flies, and the sunrise-and-sunset tableaux with which Hillcoat announces the majesty of the land.
With its cruel, pinch-faced townspeople, brutish soldiers, sympathetic natives and psychopathic outlaws, Proposition counts as a revisionist Western, and it's a good job of one (especially for Cave's first screenplay). But note that bloody-minded Arthur Burns is also flagrantly the film's most literate character. Charlie, torn between outlaw brotherhood and civilized justice, ends the film looking out on a panorama. He's escaped the box, but to what?