In retrospect, maybe Sam Peckinpah wasn't the best thing to happen to Westerns. In his day, the revisionist spirit of the '60s and '70s—shared by Monte Hellman, Sergio Leone, and others—offered a refreshingly real alternative to the slicked-up oaters of before. Even the darker "psychological" Westerns of the '50s had a cleanness that Peckinpah and company obliterated in a torrent of mud and blood. And now grime seems to be all that holds the genre together. In The Proposition, an Australian Western from screenwriter Nick Cave (yes, the goth troubadour) and director John Hillcoat, nearly everyone sports scraggly long hair and dusty beards, and they mumble overwritten, portentous lines like "You can expunge the guilt under which you so clearly labor." The sketchily symbolic characters and flat plot just frame an atmosphere of sticky heat and Biblical reckoning.
Guy Pearce stars as one of three outlaw brothers who terrorize the outback and try to steer clear of local lawman Ray Winstone. When Winstone captures Pearce and his younger brother Richard Wilson, he offers Pearce a chance to win amnesty if he tracks down and murders the clan's oldest brother, Danny Huston. On a story level, Winstone makes the deal because Huston is a dangerous man, espousing a philosophy of immorality that's beginning to win converts. On a larger level, "the proposition" is a heavy conceit about setting kin against kin in the name of saving the soul of a nation built on criminality. If any of the brothers are supposed to have any particular feelings about their lot, Cave and Hillcoat don't feel the need to show it.
Instead, the movie spends a lot of time with Winstone and his melancholy wife Emily Watson, who live in a boarded-up mini-mansion on the edge of the outback and escape the blistering sun by recreating the fancy tea services and Christmas celebrations of Olde England. The Proposition contains some mildly compelling clashes of imagery between elegance and wilderness, and it gets a small jolt of energy whenever John Hurt pops up as a wily bounty hunter prone to critiquing Charles Darwin in a raspy cackle. But even Hurt is too much a "personality" and not enough a character, and the movie ultimately gets bogged down by grimly violent vignettes of people getting impaled by spears and decapitated by shotguns. Had Cave written The Proposition as a song, the vague grotesquerie and simple, primal storytelling might've been an asset. Onscreen, it's all too literal and bluntly ugly. It's revisionism that's forgotten what it was meant to revise.