A pitiless yet elegiac Australian Western as caked with beauty as it is with blood, The Proposition opens with the visual record of a heinous outback killing. It’s the late 19th century, and in a country (and former penal colony) with lawlessness in its veins, the notorious, murderous Burns brothers, who did the killing, are right up there with the worst. The capture of Charlie Burns (a gaunt Guy Pearce, radiating soul sickness) and his vulnerable younger brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), presents the weary lawman Captain Stanley (a beefy, commanding Ray Winstone) with a bargaining chip: If Charlie will turn in his older and even more vicious brother, Arthur (Danny Huston), Stanley will spare Mikey’s life. At home, the captain’s much-loved wife, Martha (Emily Watson), does her part to tame her wild surroundings by cultivating an English garden in the careless dust.
The sinewy screenplay and dirgelike score are by musician-writer Nick Cave, translated by Australian video director John Hillcoat into breathtaking images of decay. By the rot of their teeth, the dirt on their skin, and the indifference of the camera eye as it observes men beating, shooting, and betraying one another shall we know the damnation of the white populace in this bloody place Down Under.