Don't call this an Aussie Western. Labelling will demean its power to disturb. The Proposition is as far from Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly as the destruction of Fallujah is to the siege of Troy.

Australia in the 1880s resembles early 19th century America, except the weather is harsher and the natives less threatening. The English colonialists still hold sway and because it is so far from a manageable morality, taking the law into your own hands is called initiative by another name.

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In an outpost of what is loosely called civilisation, Capt Maurice Stanley (Ray Winstone) has the dubious distinction of being chief of police, with three brutalised morons under him and an even more sadistic bureaucrat, by the name of Fletcher (David Wenham), above him. Drugged up on painkillers and occasionally boozed to oblivion, Maurice finds this assignment beyond rational endurance. The only good things are Martha (Emily Watson), his porcelain wife, their elegant house on the edge of the desert and her exquisite garden, tended by an aborigine who dresses like a member of the bowls club.

The outback, with its tribes of spear carrying natives, is a Dantesque wilderness, home to deadly creatures and murderous desperados, of whom The Burns Gang is the latest abomination, responsible for the rape and death of Martha's dear friend, Eliza Hopkins.

In a raid, Stanley's men capture two of the brothers, young Mike (Richard Wilson) and Charlie (Guy Pierce). Without consulting Fletcher, or any of the suited bureaurats down the road, Maurice offers Charlie a deal. He will take Mike and lock him up and let Charlie go free, with a horse and a gun, because the one he wants is Arthur (Danny Huston), leader of the gang, eldest of the brothers, who is holed up in a cave somewhere. He tells Charlie that if he is not back with Arthur, dead or alive, in nine days, he will hang Mike.

This is a film of uncompromising intensity and breathstealing beauty, as violent and ugly as anything that nature can conceive. Arthur's respect for family contradicts his rage against authority and Charlie's love of Mike spurs him towards an unacceptable outcome. His dilemma, to kill his brother to save his brother, is as cruel as Sophie's Choice. Stanley knows this; Charlie knows this. They are chained to a contract that might destroy them both.

Performances in this climate can only be larger than life and yet, with the exception of John Hurt's wild-eyed bounty hunter, they are subtle and sensitive. Even Winstone, with his legacy of Scum and Nil By Mouth, is relatively restrained, while Watson, as the moral strength that contains the illusion of respectability and brings meaning to an otherwise savage existence, is unobtrusively magnificent.

It is the unpredictability of these violent men and the anticipation of psychotic eruption that is frightening, like the sight of a sleeping cobra in the corner of the room.

Nick Cave's script, as well as his superb soundtrack, creates a language of its own that is entirely believable. The red sun bleeds into the encroaching night as the story passes through, leaving memories of a ravaged Eden.

Reviewed on: 10 Mar 2006
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The Proposition packshot
In the 1880s, an Australian outlaw is offered a pardon if he tracks down and kills his psychotic elder brother.
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Read more The Proposition reviews:

Anton Bitel ****1/2
Jennie Kermode ***1/2
Themroc ***

Director: John Hillcoat

Writer: Nick Cave

Starring: Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson, Danny Huston, John Hurt, David Wenham, Richard Wilson, Robert Morgan, David Gulpilil, Tom Budge

Year: 2005

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Australia/UK

Festivals:

Sundance 2006

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