If you’re familiar with the career of musician Nick Cave (beyond the searching piano ballads, that is), you’ll immediately get the aesthetic of the Australian western he’s written, The Proposition — it’s a triumph of atmosphere and melodrama, punctuated by ear-piercing blasts of gunfire, splattered in grimy blood, and concerned mainly with moral compromise.
The performances are strong, especially Ray Winstone’s as Captain Stanley, who offers the captive Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), member of the infamous Burns family, a deal he can’t refuse. (John Hurt, however, almost spoils the mood completely when he appears out of nowhere to chew up the Australian equivalent of sagebrush in a high-decibel cameo early on.) Stanley and Burns are the twin protagonists, with Stanley’s titular proposition eventually putting the outlaw Burns, whose family may be as loving in its way as it is brutish, in quite a fix.
Someone at my Sundance screening complained about the graphic violence, which comes in sudden, startling bursts (director John Hillcoat got rather defensive, and Cave later mimed kicking the questioner to the curb), and it’s true that for a general audience, the film’s calculated shock tactics may feel unfair or overwhelming. Also, I wish Cave had resisted the urge to record vocals for the film’s soundtrack, which make it feel like a bit of a rock-star vanity project. But as a rich, genre-aware meditation on the evil that men do and the evil to which other men are drawn in an attempt to make things right, The Proposition is a bracing film of great integrity. It would make sense on a double-bill with The Devil’s Rejects, but this is the more serious piece of work.