"He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost... In him broods already a taste for mindless violence... The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally..." These are lines from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. They could just as easily have come from Nick Cave's screenplay for the vengeful The Proposition. In fact, if Ridley Scott ever manages to coax Hollywood into funding his in-development adaptation of McCarthy's classic Western novel, he should consider two things. First, employing his powers of persuasion to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, as that'll be a cinch after convincing a studio suit to okay a story in which babies are hung from a tree. Second, opting to produce and hiring Cave and Proposition director John Hillcoat, as the men who have come closest to capturing the spirit of McCarthy's blood-soaked vision of how the West was really won. Except here it's the East. Eastern Australia.
"There are a lot of parallels," says Hillcoat of the US and Australia 1880, in the tidy Making Of. "A wild frontier, the epic landscape, the outlaws, the indigenous population, a nation built on extreme conflict - in many ways much more extreme than the American West at that time." His film sets out to prove it, with a Passion Of The Christ-like lashing and a cardiac-jolting exploding-head effect sure to prove the most replayed gore-shot since the cerebral splurge in Scanners. Moments such as this, and the silent spear-slinging shock that precedes it, will ensure The Proposition endures cult status on DVD. But there's much more to the movie than playground-chatter did-you-see-that goggles and, as satisfying as it still is at home, it's a shame more people didn't see the film on the big screen, where its brutality stands in even starker contrast to the Outback's terrible beauty. This is a film of extremes; often within the same scene, or the same person. In one beat, a character can be admiring a piece of jewellery ("I've never seen anything so beautiful"), the next he's raping its owner at gunpoint. The same man's transcendent song is earlier intercut with the harshest of punishments, meted out by the town's respectable citizens. There's beauty in the beast and a feral streak in civilisation. The main characters are men on opposite sides of the law, both trying to find their way. Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) wants to bring England to the outback, order to chaos; Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) wants to find peace, after years living and fighting and preparing to die with his outlaw family. When captured by Stanley, he's made an offer he can't refuse: kill his big brother (Danny Huston) to save his little one (Richard Wilson). The resulting moral paralysis will be the end of almost everything.
"What's a misanthrope?" asks another outlaw, in the build-up to the apocalyptic climax. "Some bugger who fucking hates every other bugger," replies his "black bastard" aboriginal compadre, succinctly summing up the label the filmmakers could be stuck with. But there is no cheap, paint-the-walls-black nihilism here. For all the cruelty of nature and man, there's still humanity and tenderness amid the heat, sweat and blood. Stanley's love for his wife (Emily Watson) is touching, with Winstone exceptional - bringing a wounded dignity to a man destroyed by those above and below him, a bloke whose ideals are dashed in the dust of a strange new world: "I had an idea about justice..."
No one familiar with Cave's music will be surprised by the blend of Old Testament blood and thunder and a striving for grace and redemption. There's sadness and poetry and a desperate hope, even beneath the most florid of characters, bounty hunter Jellon Lamb (a magnificent John Hurt): "I was, in days gone by, a believer. Alas, I came to this beleaguered land and the God in me just evaporated." It's Ecclesiastes as filmed by Sam Peckinpah, whose Straw Dogs actually feels the closest reference point - a Western refreshed by its alternate setting (Cornwall), dealing with matters of conscience, character, choice and retribution. Other touchstones include Apocalypse Now, with its soul-searching assassin journeying into the heart of darkness; The Searchers, with its conflicted antihero, bound by blood; and High Plains Drifter - for Pearce's laconic performance and because you feel you're riding into Hell. But while Western fans can play spot-the-reference, The Proposition still feels startlingly fresh and original.
Only David Wenham, as an English landowner, fractures the atmosphere. It may be an accurate representation of Empire-building idiocy, but his caricatured prig has barely one dimension and in a film so layered and measured, the flaw is all the more jarring. Regardless, The Proposition is a startling parable about man's savagery to man. Or, as Cave puts it in the extensive interview footage, there's "Lots of violence and no sex. My kind of film - two thumbs up!"