3½ stars (out of four)
In "The Proposition," the violent, elegiac traditions of the American movie Western are pushed to a fever pitch that irresistibly recalls the great Sam Peckinpah movies of the 1960s and '70s, even though this film is set half a world away, in 1880s Australia.
It's a smoldering adventure drama about the ways violence and prejudice can pervert justice and plunge a community into madness, and the moviemakers -- director John Hillcoat and writer/composer Nick Cave -- bring explosive, hallucinatory energy and a touch of "Deadwood"-style misanthropy to their tale.
Focusing on three outlaw brothers (Guy Pearce, Danny Huston and Richard Wilson) and a determined lawman (Ray Winstone), Hillcoat gets something close to the brooding intensity and savage eloquence with which Peckinpah infused "The Wild Bunch" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid."
The proposition of the title is simple and deadly. After an opening bullet-spattered raid, Winstone's Capt. Stanley arrests stoic Charlie Burns (Pearce) and his naive teenage brother, Mikey (Wilson), on a murder charge. He offers a pardon to both if Charlie will kill the oldest Burns brother, Arthur (Huston), whom Stanley feels is the worst of the three.
As Charlie follows Arthur and his gang to the lawless Outback, Stanley's tenuous hold on order -- and his attempts to shield his vulnerable British-born wife, Martha (Emily Watson) -- are upset by Stanley's vicious, arrogant superior, Eden Fletcher (David Wenham). Incensed at the deal with Charlie, Fletcher orders Mikey beaten, setting up a bloody reckoning with his older brothers.
Hillcoat, who directed the memorable 1988 prison drama "Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead," and Cave, the Bad Seed rocker out of Melbourne, really stir up a cross-cultural ferment here. (Cave co-wrote and co-scored "Dead"; scored Hillcoat's second movie, 1996's "To Have and To Hold"; and co-scored this one as well.)
Hillcoat steeps the film in a scary vision of European immigrants and Aboriginal tribes thrown together under a broiling sun in a frontier landscape both nightmarishly bizarre and oddly convincing -- and so dangerous that David Gulpilil, who played the daring Aborigine boy in Nicolas Roeg's 1971 classic "Walkabout," pops up as an Aborigine deputy who refuses to go to the more violent areas.
The film recaptures much of the Peckinpah mood, but Hillcoat doesn't try to re-create Peckinpah's slow-motion "ballets of violence." The bloodshed here is fast, squalid and often unexpected. There's a flogging scene less excruciating but just as painful as the one in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," and the movie builds to a stinging, furious climax and a melancholy coda.
It's a terrific, kinetic experience, and it's also a brilliant showcase for a crackerjack ensemble of great actors. Winstone (of "Scum" and "Sexy Beast") shines, as usual, as the conflicted Stanley. Huston (John Huston's son) brings suave irony and that great crooked smile to the genial, remorseless Arthur. Watson imbues Martha with her quiet, tense presence, and Pearce gives the movie a perfect seething center as Charlie.
Then there's magnificent, sad-eyed virtuoso John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a roaring old Outback bounty hunter and rapscallion, who creates a scintillating, near-Shakespearean variation on the classic grizzled old Western character parts.
Carrying through all the film's fury and grotesquerie is a deep, ambitious theme: In a world hovering on the edge of chaos and primitivism, some men take solace in law and civilization, while others cling to family and blood ties. But, if the proposition is right, violence may consume them all.
Directed by John Hillcoat; written by Nick Cave; photographed by Benoit Delhomme; edited by Jon Gregory and Ian Seymour; production designed by Chris Kennedy; music by Cave and Warren Ellis; produced by Chiara Menage, Cat Villiers, Chris Brown and Jackie O'Sullivan. A First Look Pictures release; opens Friday, May 19. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: R (strong grisly violence and language).
Charlie Burns -- Guy Pearce
Captain Stanley -- Ray Winstone
Arthur Burns -- Danny Huston
Jellon Lamb -- John Hurt
Martha Stanley -- Emily Watson
Eden Fletcher -- David WenhamCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun