Perhaps because of the simplicity of the life depicted, movies about conflicts in modern frontier societies — what may generally be called "westerns" — have been hospitable to the simplest narrative structures, chivalric romance and melodrama. The problem is that the contrast of the rustic setting and the high artificiality of literary romance and theatrical melodrama creates a kitsch effect. For decades no category of American movies was more popular, or more predictable.
At the same time, the material reaches towards more suggestive handling. The warriors' feats of horse- and gunmanship, for instance, have a legendary aura that suggest heroic sagas, though ones being sung in the age of history-writing and photography. And to the extent that the story of the frontier is the story of a people spreading into new territory and bringing their way of life with them, westerns have a sense of epic as well. But this potential richness has only set fastidious moviegoers up for repeated disappointments.
Even among the most accomplished westerns, John Hillcoat's The Proposition, from a script by Australian rocker Nick Cave, is still something special, having both the direct muscularity of a ballad and the attentiveness to social detail of a novel. As much as any western I can think of, it believably recreates the rough, struggling society of an outpost cowtown — materially, emotionally, and morally.
In the barely settled Australia of the 1880s, the Burns brothers, three roughshod, boggy Irish bushrangers, have been terrorizing outlying homesteaders. Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mike (Richard Wilson) have broken off from the eldest, the primordially brutal Arthur (Danny Huston) and his confederates, who have recently murdered a settler and raped and murdered his pregnant wife. The movie begins in media res as Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), head of the local garrison, captures Charlie and Mike in a chaotic gunfight. Stanley then makes the proposition of the title: Mike will be hanged on Christmas day within the week unless Charlie tracks Arthur down in his mountain hideout and kills him. If Charlie does so, both he and Mike will be pardoned.
At first the proposition may strike you as barbaric. (Not to mention a miscalculation to the extent that primitive Irishmen are as little likely as any humans to kill their own brothers, especially as part of a bargain with an officer of the English crown; and in fact Charlie ends up riding back to town with Arthur to release Mike.) Seen another way, however, the proposition is a relatively modern and efficient approach to the problem. It's an executory plea deal, in essence—albeit an unorthodox and improper one, since Mike, sitting in jail, has no control over whether "his" end of the bargain will be kept. But it shrewdly puts Charlie at risk rather than Stanley's own men tracking the psychotic Arthur into the inhospitable wastes of the outback. Charlie, after all, knows his brother's ways better than the soldiers do, and if he's killed it will be at the hands of someone with whom he's collaborated in crime.