Even Clint never squinted through a western this gruesome. “The Proposition” opens in the deafening midst of a barn-storming shootout and keeps the blood dripping long after the guns have been holstered. In his first screenplay, Australian musician Nick Cave offers a take on the Australian outback’s wild west that would leave John Wayne shaken.

Jonathan Duggan
“Cold Mountain” is for pansies. So is bathing. (Courtesy of First Look)

It’s a lawless stretch of empty territory, all dirt, outlaws and horrified townsfolk. Enter Captain Stanley (the genial Ray Winstone, “Sexy Beast”), a portly English soul of gruff affability new to the continent and charged with the unenviable task of cleaning house. Poor Stanley looks perpetually reluctant to shoulder the bloody burden – he’ll do what he must, but only because his moral conviction is stronger than his stomach.

It doesn’t take him long to decide where to start. When a nearby family is pillaged and raped, credit goes immediately to the Burns gang, a band of poor Irish brothers who would be reminiscent of Australia’s famous Kelly gang if their bloody antics of brutal thievery didn’t completely lack Ned Kelly’s somewhat Robin Hood-like nobility. In fact, Arthur (a haunting Danny Huston, “21 Grams”), the Burns’s oldest brother and the family’s driving force, is actually of a questionable mind. And his mania is the homicidal kind.

So it’s Christmas come early for Captain Stanley when two of the younger Burns brothers end up in his holding cell. He wastes no time in putting the titular proposition on the table: Unless Charlie, the older of the two brothers (Guy Pearce, “Memento,” here rivaling Christian Bale in “The Machinist” for intense emaciation) can bring down the deranged Arthur, their youngest brother hangs. Charlie’s got two weeks. And one hell of a moral impasse.

The bulk of “The Proposition” follows Charlie as he canvasses the barren outback for a trace of his brother, and its pace is as slow and heavy as his.

As a morality tale, the film goes epic and biblical by turns, but rather self-consciously. While Charlie quests mano a mano through the wilderness, Cave’s thick, operatic score swoops in with strings and synthesizers blazing as if to underline in neon the moment’s great symbolism. It’s a heavy-handedness the script doesn’t need. The simple plot is already so beautifully ripe for Cave’s many subtle turns and mechanizations that overstating its case leaves it trivial.

Back on the homefront of Captain Stanley’s quiet town, we also get a glimpse of bushranger domesticity, and the pervading sense of violence lurking even in the so-called safety of civilization. On one hand, there’s Stanley’s lovely little wife, Martha (Emily Watson, “Punch-Drunk Love”), who embodies all the feminine loyalty her character’s name implies. She’s another English newcomer, a woman whose delicate efforts to create a proper home in the deserted outback actually makes a heroine out of a model housewife.

But even she stays to watch when the youngest Burns brother is dragged from his cell for a brutal public flogging. His back literally ripped to shreds, the young teen, no more than a boy, screams fitfully with every snap; the townsfolk simply stand by, immobile and gaping. In this frontier, violence isn’t reserved only for the criminals – it’s the law of the land.

So how ignoble is it really for a group of brothers to band together and wield that law with their own hands? In a place where everyone is out for themselves to the bitterest end, how can Charlie turn his back from his brothers, a group of men who by the tie of family alone pledge to cover it for life? Between the order of corrupt law and the utter chaos of omnipresent violence, Cave’s riveting account of the bushranger outback only makes a case for survival of the fittest.

Rating: 3 and 1/2 out of 5 stars

The Proposition
At the Michigan Theater
First Look

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