Trotted out like ol' Trigger whenever there's a movie with saddles and six-shooters, the term "revisionist Western" would surely be a cliché if there were enough Westerns to warrant its use more than every few years. Fact is, any movie in a genre as depressingly out-to-pasture as the Western is revisionist: What we need is a tenable list of sub-sub-genres—the elegiac revisionist Western (Unforgiven), the surrealist one (Dead Man), the leftist (Lone Star), the feminist (The Ballad of Little Jo), the narcissist (Dances with Wolves). Written by goth-punk rocker Nick Cave in the spirit of Sam Peckinpah, The Proposition, set in the Australian outback of the 1880s, is a revisionist Western of the nihilist variety: The title refers to a burned-out lawman's pathetic offer to an outlaw: Kill your older brother and I'll spare your younger one. Distinguishing these two killers in terms of each one's right to live isn't something that The Proposition worries much about. Like his characters, director John Hillcoat shoots first and asks questions later, if at all.
The movie opens, suitably, amid a hailstorm of bullets: Two-thirds of a murderous gang of Irish siblings—shrieking Mikey Burns (Richard Wilson) and sullen Charlie (Guy Pearce)—are failing to fend off the well-armed law from inside their decrepit cabin hideout. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), an Englishman entrusted to "civilize this land" even beyond his tribe's rampant slaughter and enslavement of Aborigines, delivers his stern proposition to half-dead Charlie, who is left with no choice but to accept. He sets out on horseback to find and presumably kill Arthur, leader of the Burns clan, who has vanished somewhere in the outback. If Hillcoat has a sense from Cave of the brothers' relationship to one another, he isn't telling: A low-angle shot of stringy-haired Charlie atop his horse, swigging a bottle under a dark-blue sky while Cave's score swirls and howls, makes plain that The Proposition has more to do with mood than meaning; the movie's ice-cold characterizations make Peckinpah look like John Ford.
Charlie's existence may be akin to a gut-shot dog's, but civilized life appears no less animalistic here. Winstone's stressed-out lawman struggles to playact a Victorian idyll with his earthy wife Martha (Emily Watson), who's always ready with fizzy headache remedies and breakfast on fine china, although their white mansion in the middle of nowhere—the Captain peering nervously from every window—looks open to attack from all sides. In a haunting performance, Winstone uses his fleshy face in ironic counterpoint to Pearce's gaunt one: The captain is well fed but hollowed out—his mouth slightly agape, his eyes always a little moist. What actor wouldn't have killed to be in this movie? John Hurt turns up as the absurdly named Jellon Lamb, a soused bounty hunter who seems to prepare Charlie for the showdown with his wayward kin by drunkenly invoking Darwin. For his part, Hillcoat hardly denies that we're descended from apes when, later, he plops the shaggy siblings on a rocky platform in front of the same orange-and-purple sunset that Kubrick used to illuminate the bone-wielding simians of 2001.
The twist of The Proposition—an obvious one, perhaps—is that Arthur (Danny Huston), the brother who's ostensibly the roughest of the three, has a Christlike demeanor and the musings to go along with it. "Love," he tells Charlie when they meet. "Love is the key. And family." Those words will be rather severely undercut by Arthur's involvement in the movie's ultra-gory denouement—set, appropriately, on Christmas Eve. But Cave uses them to suggest that what The Proposition's characters have in common—the only thing they have in common, really—is the desire for community amid the well-founded expectation of imminent, violent death. Cave's intermittently abrasive music, with its quasi-industrial clang, suggests that the future will offer no reprieve, and that maybe it doesn't matter. Conversation is as meaningless as anything else in this barbarist take on The Searchers; the incessant chorus of buzzing flies—inevitable inheritors of what remains—takes precedence over whatever is spoken. No wonder the last line of dialogue is the question of a man who won't live to hear the answer.