In the lawless 1880 Australian Outback, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) apprehends, via firefight, renegade Irish criminals Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson), two-thirds of the notorious Burns Gang that’s responsible for the brutal slaying of a family, alluded to in haunting introductory snapshots of frontier funerals, that included a pregnant friend of Stanley’s wife Martha (Emily Watson). Resolved to “civilize this land,” Stanley offers Charlie a deal: to save young Mike from the hangman’s noose and to receive absolution for his crimes, he must hunt and kill his older brother—and famed desperado—Arthur (Danny Huston), a Zen-like madman nestled somewhere in one of the desert’s myriad rocky ranges. To this choice that is no choice, Charlie agrees, thus kickstarting the no-win push-pull dynamic between modernism and primitivism that fuels The Proposition, a revisionist western written by rocker Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat (who previously collaborated on 1988’s dystopian prison allegory Ghosts…of the Civil Dead) that, as with HBO’s similarly soiled Deadwood, is coated in flies, mud, and sweat while exuding an appreciation for—and fearful awe of—the near-mythic savagery that stands as enlightened society’s vicious antipode.
With his ragged duster, wide-brimmed hat and scruffy beard, Charlie eerily resembles Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, though unlike that otherworldly agent of gunslinging revenge, this outlaw—embodied by Pearce with a sense of quiet moral disorientation—does not rise from the grave a vengeful Lazarus but as an agent of fratricidal conflict. Charged with finding Arthur by English interlopers intent on taming the dusty wasteland and subjugating its aboriginal inhabitants, Charlie first encounters on his mission a bounty hunter named Lamb (a deliciously loony John Hurt) who, referring to Darwin, shrieks with sloshed glee, “He infers that we share a common ancestry with monkeys!” An acknowledgement of man’s inherent bestiality that will later be confirmed, with bucketloads of blood, by the actions of Charlie, his familial gang, and Stanley’s boss Fletcher (David Wenham), Lamb’s articulation of evolutionary theory speaks to The Proposition’s caustic view of mankind as little more than animals trying desperately, violently, and somewhat foolishly to soothe feral instincts with refined customs and conventions. From the sight of Mike’s prison cell guards enacting a lion-tamer routine to the rumor that the hill-ensconced Arthur has magically transformed into a dog, the film seems determined to refute Lamb’s own dearly held xenophobic belief that “we are white men, sir. Not beasts.”
Hillcoat and Cave envision civilization’s encroachment into the wild as necessitating an abolishment of coarse impulses, an unavoidable process that—as in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West—is still painfully problematic because of its intrinsic unnaturalness. Charlie’s tortured decision to save Mike and sacrifice Arthur, like Stanley’s risky plan to free one murderer to catch another, is a symbolic preference for order over disorder. But as with Stanley’s attempts to assume a dignified Christmas feast with his out-of-her-element wife, the reconciliation of sophisticated ethical ideals with unsavory (yet pragmatic for survival) eye-for-an-eye, call-of-the-wild principles is not achieved without the offering of a sacrificial pound of flesh. In this vein, Hillcoat juxtaposes Mike’s eventual lashing at the bequest of Fletcher (and over the objections of Stanley) with the angelic singing of one of Arthur’s right-hand men, a disharmonious point-counterpoint of agony and ecstasy that encapsulates the despondency of The Proposition’s meditation on personal and national assimilation. And if said integration is ultimately depicted—via Cave’s sparsely poetic writing and jangling score, Hillcoat’s measured, semi-mystical imagery, and Winstone’s majestically tortured performance as the conscience-wracked Stanley—as a crime against nature itself, the film nonetheless also recognizes by its crimson-stained finale that, for man’s continued survival, the sun must inevitably set on such unchecked, unruly human barbarism.