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"The Proposition"

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Nick Cave wrote this gloomy, macabre Western set in the Australian Outback of the 1880s, and the movie's tone will not surprise anyone familiar with the recording artist's often dark songwriting in various post-punk bands. Cave is working in a familiar key as he explores this alien but creepily familiar land, a down-under parallel to Deadwood or Monument Valley complete with John Ford's mythic catalogue of bad men, hard-scrabble ranchers and lawmen riding tall in the rhetoric. It even has some Aboriginal "Injuns."

It's an interesting idea, this "other" land of ex-Brit cowboys, and at first the novelty of it carries you along. Director John Hillcoat's movie, however, hangs precariously on the plot device indicated by the title. Outlaw Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), captured by one Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), is set free and given a chance to save his little brother, Mikey (Richard Wilson), if he rides out and kills his bigger brother, Arthur (Danny Huston). Arthur Burns is a much more wicked and wily bad guy. His most recent escapade was the ravaging of a local farm, where he and his gang left an entire family dead and then burned down their house. But not until after they raped the pregnant matron of the settlement, who happened to be the best friend of Captain Stanley's wife, Martha (Emily Watson).

"The Proposition" is a violent movie, and its violence begs some kind of attention long overdue to on-screen carnage. Is there purpose here? There are great sequences in terms of building a suspense for vengeance, but is suspense really Cave's and Hillcoat's concern? Their movie ends in a storm of blood, bullets and dust, but nothing is ever resolved. The violence in their film doesn't feel out of proportion, just unanchored. Obsessively concentrating on the blood and guts, they've accidentally blown out the brains. *** S



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