The Western may be lost to us as any sort of sustained tradition, but as the titles Unforgiven, Dead Man, and A History of Violence suggest, it intermittently returns as an unquiet ghost—this week in an Australian variant, The Proposition.
A true anachronism and an authentic lone ranger, The Proposition—directed by John Hillcoat from Nick Cave's script—is as primal, savage, and downright miserable as all but the greatest of Hollywood's terminal oat operas. Conjuring up a bit of Peckinpah mayhem, it opens violently in medias res— a hard rain of bullets perforating the walls of some wretched cabin as a local lawman (Ray Winstone) captures a pair of desperado brothers. Winstone jails the younger (Richard Wilson) and sends the other (Guy Pearce) on a traitor's mission to save the kid from a Christmas date with the hangman by tracking down and killing their eldest brother (Danny Huston).
A blarney-prone psychopath whom the fearful aboriginals dub "dog fella," brooding Huston dwells somewhere in the back of the outback with a cultlike gang of wild Irish outlaws. Pearce plods on but it's Huston, with less screen time, who effectively splits the movie with (and ultimately steals it from) Winstone. Huston's character is brutal and poetic; Winstone's is brutal and prosaic, his imperial burden embodied in the Victorian form of his corseted wife (Emily Watson). In the best Western tradition, he's sufficiently responsible to attempt to protect his prisoner from a lynch mob—although, as in the most anti-American of counterculture Westerns, civilization (such as it is) seems built on a mound of aboriginal bones.
Early on, Pearce encounters a drunken adventurer (John Hurt), who in one show-stopping scene, takes it upon himself to wheezily explicate Darwin's (new) theory of evolution. Descent from the apes seems positively natural in this dry-gulch hellhole of orange skies, buzzing flies, and ferocious carnage—a landscape rendered all the more uncanny by the incantatory drone of Cave's whispering, muttering score. The climactic Christmas dinner of dreadful retribution is a terrifying prospect, but for anyone with a yen for our great lost genre, it's also some sort of gift.