The silence of the Australian outback has a distinctive ethereal quality (my experience being Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock). In The Proposition, you’re more likely to hear the rending of flesh by bullet or pistol butt, or Nick Cave’s gloomy-grating guitars. Yet the immanent stillness, along with several land’s-end sunsets, gives the brutal 19th-century setting its own fallen-majestic look distinct from our own frontier westerns. Tremulous Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), seeks to “civilize” the smudge of desert that hosts his town, triggering a cycle of retribution with aboriginals. Stanley delivers his proposition, in a rare moment of convincing bluster (Winstone’s ruddy face often looks puffy, as if from tears), to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), member of the Burns gang: hunt, betray, and murder brother Arthur (casually vicious Danny Huston) lest their jailed dimwitted kid brother be executed.
Among other things, the film’s a wait to see who dies first by what eruption of violence: Arthur, hunted by Charlie; Charlie, by Arthur or someone on his journey; Stanley, by Arthur or just his suffocating cloud of tragedy. Stanley hides out in his private/public world with his resettled wife (Emily Watson), in a vulnerably wide-open house. Characters gather and lose nerve to do what takes more than just nerve anyway, like the villagers who watch an interminable whipping being administered but gradually drift away.
But Pearce, the hollows of his face under a beard, lacks the presence of Huston and even moist-eyed Winstone. He can’t hold up as fulcrum for the ur-family jostling with good and evil. And the blood-brother vengeance and Darwinian chaos can’t quite sustain the desired mythic or morally compelling pitch.