If Nick Cave had written it in song, his harsh Australian western "The Proposition" might have made a fine addition to "Murder Ballads," his album of bloody tunes about killers, barbaric love and death.
Fleshed out as a film in the singer's first solo screenplay effort, "The Proposition" makes for a dark and twisted time, a portrait of a bleak 1880s frontier that, like Cave's songs, offers an intriguing blend of the idyllic and the savage.
The film's brutality will be a turnoff for some. "The Proposition" is no bloodier than many a schlocky horror flick, but the violence feels real and ruthless, carrying a much more visceral impact.
Director John Hillcoat, whose collaborations with Cave include the prison drama "Ghosts of the Civil Dead," forges a film gorgeous in its sparseness and harshness, cinematographer Benoit Delhomme capturing a vast land of rugged, pitiless splendor.
Guy Pearce is the ostensible lead, playing a captured outlaw given an agonizing choice: hunt down and slay his mad-dog older brother, or watch his childlike younger brother hanged.
Yet it's Ray Winstone, Emily Watson and particularly Danny Huston who dominate the film. Pearce's facade of stony stoicism rarely cracks to give a glimpse of the turmoil within, while Winstone, Watson and Huston subtly infuse their own austere characters with a great range — desperation, doubt, devotion, resignation.
"The Proposition" opens in the middle of a shootout as the law catches up with Charlie Burns (Pearce) and sibling Mikey (Richard Wilson), wanted for crimes that include rape and murder.
After the brothers are captured, Capt. Stanley (Winstone), a British lawman intent on taming his patch of wild Australia, offers Charlie an arrangement. He and Mikey will be pardoned if Charlie tracks and kills their brother Arthur (Huston), the demon of the family who's considered the real instigator of the siblings' misdeeds.
If Charlie fails, hapless Mikey swings by the neck.
Charlie's search for Arthur through the stark outback is juxtaposed with the awkwardly tender home life of Stanley and his wife, Martha (Watson), a close friend of a woman raped and killed by the Burns boys.
The hushed, genteel interplay between Winstone and Watson is marvelous, the actors creating a complex dynamic of a husband trying to shield his porcelain bride from the world's ugliness, coming to realize his wife is far less fragile than he believed.
"The Proposition" carries a warning about its disturbing depiction of violence against Aborigines, yet the carnage — often jolting in its severity and suddenness — is meted out democratically against settlers and natives.
Amid the brutishness, Huston's Arthur emerges as a surprising figure, a poetic, almost cultured spirit whose philosophical soulfulness makes for an engrossing contrast to his amoral cold-bloodedness toward all those outside his extended family of fellow renegades.
Huston, the son of director John Huston and half-brother of Anjelica Huston, inhabits Arthur with a wondrous mix of charm, humor, cunning and mournful awareness that the way of the gun is passing, and him with it.
Cave provides scattered vocals and wrote the score with Bad Seeds bandmate Warren Ellis, the rootsy, melancholy music evoking a way of life giving way obstinately to civilization.
MPAA rating: R for strong grisly violence, and for language.
A First Look Pictures release. Director John Hillcoat. Screenplay Nick Cave. Producers Chris Brown, Jackie O'Sullivan, Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers. Director of photography Benoît Delhomme. Editor Jon Gregory.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes. Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times