The Outback might be rough and wild, but it’s the architecture that takes a real beating in The Proposition. Included among the archival photos of frontier Australian life in the 19th century shown during the opening credits is a fictitious “Scene of the Hopkins Outrage,” what’s left of a genteel household after a day’s work by psychopathic outlaw Arthur Burns (Danny Huston). What a mess. So, too, is the barn where Burns’s brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey (Richard Wilson) have endured the fusillades of the posse out to nab them. Sunlight streams from hundreds of bullet holes, illuminating the sprawled bodies of the dead and wounded. The message: if you’re looking for peace and quiet, head outdoors.
YOUR BROTHER OR YOUR BROTHER: Guy Pearce has to choose.
Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), head of the posse, wants to change that. “I will civilize this land,” he announces as he pistol-whips Mikey, the mewling weakling of the Burns clan. To that end he’s set up his own manicured homestead complete with tea service, manservant, rose garden and pale, pretty wife (Emily Watson) — all in all a much better spread than Gene Hackman’s fixer-upper in Unforgiven. What Stanley wants, though, is Arthur, who’s slipped away to an inaccessible retreat. So he makes his proposition to tough and thoughtful Charlie: find your brother Arthur and kill him by Christmas or we’ll string Mikey up.
Charlie’s trek through the alien landscape allows Nick Cave, whose screenplay is as overwrought and thrilling as the lyrics to his Bad Seeds songs, lots of scenery over which to play his haunting soundtrack. The effect is glorious and ridiculous. Sam Peckinpah might blanch at the excess of squalor, graphic bloodshed, and overacting.
Top prize for this last goes to John Hurt, whose one-man-band turn as a drunken, poetry-quoting bounty hunter ends in what seems like an allusion to Alien. Pearce grimaces thoughtfully, Winstone suffers spiritual conflict and then just suffers, Watson brings a queasy perversity to her chaste civilizing presence, Wilson takes a beating and keeps on squealing, and Noah Taylor as Brian, the most inbred Burns brother of all, sings like an angel and toys with Christmas ornaments just before getting down to the business of rape, murder, and idiocy. Anchoring the cast, though, is Huston, who makes insane, nihilistic violence seem like a viable philosophical position and also a lot of fun. He shines in his oversized, iconic role, evoking some of his dad’s malignancy in Chinatown.
As for director John Hillcoat, no qualms about overkill there. He matches Cave’s overheated script blow for blow, with emphasis on the absurdity, heavy irony, and fetor. His visual embodiment of society and its discontents isn’t very subtle, but it’s hard to argue with. And I don’t think he’d mind being called derivative of Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and, of course, Peckinpah, to whom he pays homage in a lyrical final scene reminiscent of the “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” sequence in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Once again the message is: if you’re looking for peace and quiet, get the hell out of the house.