Set in the Australia of the 1880s, “The Proposition” opens with a shootout between the Irish-born gangsters Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce, looking like Ted Neeley from “Jesus Christ Superstar”) and his 14-year-old brother Mikey (Richard Wilson) and a local militia led by the British Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). The Burns brothers were responsible for a savage and fatal attack on a farm family and their arrest is a law enforcement victory. But another brother, the renegade older sibling Arthur (Danny Huston), is missing and believed to be in hiding far in the Outback. Stanley offers Charlie the chance to save his kid brother from being hanged by sending him out on horseback into the Outback to hunt down and kill his older brother. If this is arranged, the surviving Burns boys will receive a full pardon.
“The Proposition” is written by singer/songwriter Nick Cave, who tries and fails to incorporate the nihilism and artistry of the Leone and Peckinpah Westerns into an Australian setting. The violence is not organic to the story – it is literally shoehorned in, often with clumsy abruptness that has no emotional effect. It also doesn’t help that the story’s premise makes little sense (even several of the characters in the film question the logic of the action), and the unfolding of the storyline is painfully predictable to the point that one can have no problem in determining who will remain standing by the closing credits.
Yet to its favor, “The Proposition” presents a surprisingly brutal depiction of late 19th century Australian life. The film’s production designers worked overtime to recreate a dusty, isolated environment where man barely exists with a harsh nature. Nearly everyone is covered in dirt, sweat and flies – the sole exception is Stanley’s pristine wife (Emily Watson), who seems to have wandered out from a Merchant-Ivory movie into this wild and grimy world. John Hillcoat also manages to keep his ensemble in a low-keyed state of emotion, with the sole exception coming from an over-the-top John Hurt as an irrationally exuberant bounty hunter. But Hurt’s on-screen shenanigans are little more than an extended guest appearance and his wacky display offers little damage.
“The Proposition” is a good film, but it should’ve been a great one.