If Peter Weir, Sam Peckinpah and Jim Jarmusch could somehow collaborate on a film written by Joseph Conrad, it would probably look something like "The Proposition," a new Australian Western from director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave. A minimalist Outback tale punctuated by moments of extreme violence, "The Proposition" is a film far more likely to find a cult following in years to come than it is to achieve any kind of mainstream success, despite the presence of several recognizable faces.
It begins will a volley of gunfire. The British forces attempting to keep order in Australia have tracked down Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson) Burns, two of the brothers believed to be responsible for a recent massacre. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a deal: If Charlie goes out into the wilderness and brings back his brother Arthur (Danny Huston), both Charlie and Mikey will be pardoned. If he doesn't, Mikey will hang on Christmas Day. Charlie's journey into the brutally barren desert is paralleled with the lives of the Captain and his wife (the always-good Emily Watson), two colonialists doing everything possible to hold onto the vestiges of civility in a land that's quite feral.
Cave, best known for his bluesy day job fronting The Bad Seeds, makes an auspicious screenwriting debut, weaving together these two stories of men on the verge of an abyss. Charlie is a savage, who sees the possibility of salvation within his grasp. The Captain is a gentleman, who sees himself slipping into the decrepitude all around him. Neither man would have any awareness that the line between them was rubbed out long ago. Behind both of them are the actual natives of the land, the aboriginal peoples who are similarly torn between remaining true to their heritage or selling out to modernity. For a film in which few words are spoken, "The Proposition" offers much to chew on.
While Cave's words are poetic, Hillcoat concentrates on the ugliness. The film is gorgeously burnt-out and brown. As the cliche goes, the landscape is another character in the drama, as are the flies, which seem to coat every character like an extra layer of skin atop the dirt that already obscures their flesh. At times, Hillcoat may be a bit too invested in the desolation for the good of the pacing.
Pearce's face is on the poster and the "Memento" star perfectly conveys the futility of both his lifestyle and his mission, but it's Winstone's movie. Because of Pearce's charisma, Winstone is instantly positioned as the antagonist, and yet he wins unexpected sympathy for his similarly untenable position. Huston's magnetic in a villainous turn that suggests that, like his father John, his greatest acting potential may be in dark parts. John Hurt makes a wacky cameo as a crazed bounty hunter.
In addition to the scenario, Cave also contributes haunting music, a score that includes both songs and several eerie themes that repeat throughout. The movie plays out, in fact, very much like an extended blues sound. You may not detect the hooks immediately, but there's no mistaking the passion.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times