The opening of John Hillcoat's The Proposition wastes no time getting you in the mood. Four or five criminals are being shot at in a small shack and quickly answer back with ample fire power. Blood spurts everywhere, and two Asian prostitutes are quickly disposed of.
It's the 1880s: Dirt and dust are on the rise and hygiene is sadly in decline. The Burns brothers have been split up: Eddie (Danny Huston) has run off into the desert caves of Australia while Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) have gotten snagged in a gunfight. The captain of the local English sheriffs, Captain Stanley (a brooding Ray Winstone), has ordered the hanging of Mike but tells Charlie that if he kills Eddie, he will turn them both free.
Hillcoat, who collaborated with screenwriter/crooner Nick Cave in 1988's unfortunate Ghosts of the Civil Dead, conjures up the spirit of the Western film, but there's a more astute sense of personal investment than most Westerns. The way Hillcoat and What Time Is It There? cinematographer Benoit Delhomme shoot the outback gives an added weight to the isolation Charles feels over his decision. Pearce hasn't been this good since Memento, using his boney face as a canvas to show the deep torment the search and conclusion are putting him through.
As Charles is making his way to his brother's hideout, Stanley is home, watching over Mike and attempting to tend to his dotting wife (Emily Watson). Things seem fine until one of his superiors, Fletcher (David Wenham), demands that Mike be given 40 licks, against Stanley's wishes.
The ending, set off by Mike's accidental death, is relentless in brutality, and manages to bring all the characters to logical conclusions. The Proposition's main pull, besides a great cast, is the roughed-up, orange and brown atmosphere that Hillcoat brings. The tones all bring out the dirtiness of the lawless outback and the Australian sunsets are captured with luminous power.
The most powerful scenes are small scenes of dialogue: Charles speaking to a hitman (a haunting John Hurt) after his brother, Stanley talking with his wife. It blends the personal feel of a Western (think My Darling Clementine) with the broad Australian atmosphere. It doesn't quite measure up to last year's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, but it's a brutal revivalist Western, filled with moments of raw power and blunt emotions. It's a breath of dusty air in what has been a surprisingly mundane movie year, so far.
I propose a bth.