THE PROPOSITION (John Hillcoat). 104 minutes. Opens Friday (May 26). For venues and times, see Movies, page 101. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
This is a relentlessly bleak tale of murder and failure set against and defined by the beautiful but desolate Australian desert. Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) delivers a finely crafted, thoroughly believable study of repressed personal pain and class-based anxiety as 19th-century British lawman Captain Stanley, intent on bringing civilization to the outback.
But he's impotent -- literally, with a trophy wife who represents all he aspires to, and socially, with the townsfolk and rigid and barbarous local establishment.
When Stanley offers outlaw Charlie Burns (Memento's Guy Pearce ) a pardon if he kills his mass-murdering brother, we know it's all going to go horribly wrong.
The film plays like one of the murder ballads that screenwriter Nick Cave is fond of and that give weight to the soundtrack. But the mythic grandeur of those songs wilts under the film's hopeless brutality.
Except for Charlie, the outlaw brothers who oppose Stanley are merely a collection of psychopaths. The gruesome violence meted out by both sides only adds to the hopelessness, while the fine camera work keeps showing how ill-at-ease everyone is in this landscape.
But it all plays beautifully. The scenes between Winstone and Emily Watson as his wife are filled with tender agony. Danny Huston is quietly scary as the gang leader, and John Hurt happily hams it up as a drunk bounty hunter.