- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

“The Proposition,” written by post-punk rocker and novelist Nick Cave (of the Bad Seeds) and directed by John Hillcoat, is an unforgiving, visually stunning tale of crime and punishment set in the Australian Outback in the 1880s. It dramatizes the age-old struggle between nature and civilization through the story of a band of bloodthirsty brigands and the violent but conflicted lawman determined to bring them to justice, and the sun-scorched frontier and the efforts of the British Empire to tame it.

Ray Winstone plays Captain Stanley, a hardened veteran of the colonial service who is on a mission to capture bandit Arthur Burns (played by Danny Huston). Arthur is wanted for the brutal rape and murder of a pregnant woman and other assorted atrocities, and he lives a near-feral existence with his cohorts in the desert wilds far outside of a small frontier outpost. The movie opens with a fierce gun battle in which Stanley captures Arthur’s two younger brothers: the waifish and addled Mikey, played by Richard Wilson, and the taciturn, inscrutable Charlie, played by Guy Pearce.

The “proposition” of the title is this: Charlie can save brother Mikey from the gallows if he agrees to hunt down and kill Arthur. It is a brutally simple premise worthy of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone, and Mr. Hillcoat is wise to let the dazzling photography, spare soundtrack and strong performances move the tale. Mr. Cave’s script is laconic, and his score, co-written with Warren Ellis, is spare, eerie and forbidding, blending Aboriginal instruments and rhythms with electronica to create a sound that feels both modern and contemporaneous with the late 19th-century milieu.

Mr. Winstone, best known to American audiences for his leading role opposite a hyperkinetic Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast,” here is the master of the slow burn. Capable of sudden outbursts of violence, he is also committed to the rituals of domesticity, as he seeks to carve out a home life worthy of his proper English wife Martha, played by Emily Watson.

The clapboard house with its picket fence and rose garden that Stanley and Martha share serves as a miniature of the strange mixture of optimism, arrogance and inwardness that characterized the Australian enterprise. As the movie careens toward its final conflagration, it becomes clear that the house will not be the sanctuary the couple desired.

Mr. Winstone’s minor-key performance serves to accentuate Captain Stanley’s moral ambiguity. He is determined to bring English civilization to the Outback — not just with the bullets he uses on the Aboriginal guerrillas who war against Stanley’s men, but also with the shoes and clothes he provides to the more docile tribesmen who work as servants in his home. Yet he occupies a world of rough men and few women; a world in which long stretches of unconquerable tedium are punctuated by moments of extreme, horrible violence; a world that, despite his best intentions, he cannot master.

***Three starsTITLE: “The Proposition”RATING: R (Foul language and sudden bursts of graphic, extreme violence )

CREDITS: Written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat. Cinematography by Benoit Delhomme.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thepropositionfilm.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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