Despite a wildly misleading, spoiler-filled trailer that presents it as a violence-driven action film, The Proposition is in fact a western much more in the style of Terrence Malick than that of Sergio Leone. Written by musician Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat, the film is dominated by the barren landscape of wildest Australia, and manages the nearly impossible task of combining great tension with languorous pacing. The violence, when it occurs, reflects not Leone’s glorious, long-awaited explosions, but rather the horror and suffering of real life. Nothing about the west in The Proposition is romantic or seductive: this place is lawless and dirty and full of death.
Set in Australia during the era of the bushranger (criminals who hid in the Outback to avoid capture; Ned Kelly, subject of the Heath Ledger film of the same name, is easily the most famous) that fell during the last half of the 19th century, The Proposition opens with the brutal capture of two such men, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger bother, Mikey (Richard Wilson). Along with older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the two men are known to have raped and killed a woman and her family, so both face death by hanging. Desperate to capture Arthur, however, and unable to extract Arthur from his Outback hiding place, the British commander (Maurice Stanley, wonderfully played by Ray Winstone) offers Charlie a deal: if he finds and kills his brother by Christmas -- nine days’ time -- Mikey will be spared the hangman’s noose. Just as fiercely protective of his simple-minded brother as the Captain suspected, Burns accepts the deal; Mikey is taken to prison and his brother begins his search.