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The Proposition

(2006) *** R
104 min. First Look Pictures. Director: John Hillcoat. Cast: Guy Pearce, Emily Watson, John Hurt, Ray Winstone, David Wenham.

With The Proposition, screenwriter Nick Cave uses the taming of Australia as the backdrop for a nasty, dirty western about the implications of violence. With independednt vigor, quirky rocker Cave and director John Hillcoat fashion a pulp fiction that incrementally challenges traditional notions of right and wrong.

In 19th Century Australia, the three Burns brothers have become infamous as the perpetrators of a civilian massacre. When two are apprehended, a police captain (Ray Winstone) offers one of them a deal: kill the third, and the other brothers can go free. Released on his own recognizance, Guy Pearce's cryptic Charlie heads off to meet his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and, perhaps, put an end to his abominable ways.

The Proposition never quite decides what makes its outlaws tick. Called a "monster" and purported to be able to transform into a dog, Arthur Burns indeed seems little better than an animal; his moral blinders only recognize, petulantly, wrongs done to his own (for his part, Arthur answers the question "Are we misanthropes?" with "Good Lord, no, we're family"). Another outlaw in the gang sings like a nightingale and can recognize the beauty in a pair of finely crafted earrings, but rapes and murders with impunity. Cave never pretends to understand this contradiction, but at least he acknowledges it.

Cave and Hillcoat more assuredly establish Winstone's Captain Stanley as the crux of the film: the recognizable representative of civility, or the tragic illusion of it. His behavior can be questionable, even deplorable, but as the thin line between civilians and criminals, he deserves more gratitude than he gets. Emily Watson is highly effective as Stanley's wife, driven to inhumane, bloodlusty, public vengeance though she considers herself a stranger in a strange land.

John Hurt delivers an effective supporting turn as a bounty hunter chilled and tickled by Darwin's notion that he shares a common ancestry with the aborigines (many of whom are indentured in boomtowns). "We are white men, sir," he says. "Not beasts." The law of reciprocity allows an eye for an eye in the conflict between aborigines and whites, and indeed in most any conflict; Hillcoat accurately paints 19th-century Australia as a time and place of wary, wily negotiation and positioning.

Hillcoat arranges a number of darkly appealing elements. The film is suffused with songs; Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' originals share time with ironically employed traditional folk tunes, like Andrew Young's "There is a Happy Land." Benoit Delhomme's cinematography casts a sickly-pretty sunset glow on the dust and grime and swarming flies of the outback (Aussie film buffs will also note Noah Taylor's blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo). For all this iconography, Hillcoat wisely doesn't marry himself to it: awakened by a gunshot one morning, Captain Stanley takes a pratfall on his way to restore order.

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