``The Proposition" starts with a genteel fake-out. An untrained child's voice sings ``There is a Happy Land" accompanied by an old-time fiddle; weathered black-and-white photos of 19th-century Australian colonial life pass before our eyes. Settlers, townspeople, gray-eyed Aborigines in European dress. It's all very Ken Burns.
Then the corpses start showing up.
Pitched somewhere between Outback western and totemic bloodbath, ``The Proposition" is to Australia's saga of conquest what a Sam Peckinpah movie is to our own frontier myths: a gory, tender dismantling. It's also a near-masterpiece of mood and menace, and one that deserves to be seen on the largest screen possible. The endless Down Under horizons have discombobulated the film's small English minds, and they deserve to do as much for the audience.
Working from a script by cult-rocker Nick Cave (who also wrote the jangling score), director John Hillcoat cuts to the chase, or rather, its aftermath. Outback lawman Captain Morris Stanley (Ray Winstone, of ``Sexy Beast") has brought in two of the three Burns brothers, a gang of cutthroat ``bushrangers" who have murdered and despoiled a settler family.
Trouble is, Stanley's brought in the wrong two Burnses: teenage half-wit Mikey (Richard Wilson) and laconic middle brother Charlie (Guy Pearce). The gang's leader, Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) -- ``a monster, an abomination," in the captain's words -- remains holed up in the caves of the Queensland wastes, a sort of primordial Osama bin Laden of the Antipodes.
Stanley makes Charlie an offer: Go and kill your older brother, or your younger brother will hang. This makes as much sense as anything else in the film's sunbaked Beckett landscape, so Charlie reluctantly heads for the hills while the captain tries to keep the townsfolk from lynching his prisoner.
Not an easy task. Slow yet coiled and mesmerizing, ``The Proposition" has allegorical echoes beneath the mud and the blood. The settlers know they're living in a fallen world: Most of them are descended from transported convicts, and the country still has the brooding virulence of a penal colony. It takes a half step to regress into savagery, and Arthur and his gang have taken two giant steps.
The idea that this hell might be worth improving is absurd to everyone except Captain Stanley. ``I will civilize this place," he mutters, and Charlie incredulously responds, ``What the [expletive] are you talking about, Stan?"
As Charlie makes his way toward the Kurtz-like Arthur, he encounters a cheerfully racist little bounty hunter (John Hurt) and has a run-in -- make that a run-through -- with a native spear that appears out of nowhere. The film's view of the indigenous locals is sad and clear-eyed. No matter which white man is fighting which, it's the Aborigines who lose.
Back in town, Stanley faces the wrath of businessman Eden Fletcher (David Wenham) and his own soldiers; everyone just wants blood. In this context, the captain's attempts to protect his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), from the brute realities of Outback life are touching and futile, like a man trying to blow out the sun. Even Fletcher looks at Martha's tea-set and smiles grimly, knowing that such things only get broken here.
``The Proposition" gradually tightens the screws in a way that honors both narrative and metaphor. Hillcoat sidesteps the portentousness in Cave's script by shooting simply, without fancy angles or busy tracking shots. Eventually, Charlie comes to his big brother, who sits on a cliff facing the sunset, a gentle, homicidal guru. ``Be humble of heart, Charlie," Arthur says. ``This is the end of things." The idea that it might be the beginning of something different never occurs to him.
Before now, I never pegged Danny Huston for a dangerous man. The son of director John Huston, he usually plays passive-aggressive whiners, like his treacherous attache in ``The Constant Gardener." In ``The Proposition," Huston wears his hair ragged and long and he has Charlie Manson's gleam in his eye. Asked by one of his gang members if they're misanthropes -- Arthur has just defined the word as ``one who hates humanity" -- he responds, ``Lord, no. We're a family."
Well, so were Cain and Abel, and look what happened to them. For his part, Pearce manages to be magnificent without doing terribly much; he gives a battered yet distilled portrait of watchfulness. Charlie sees the innocents in this society -- the dead settlers, Martha Stanley, his own idiot brother -- and slowly comes to understand that they're not weak but good. That goodness can grow here.
``What are you going to do now?" someone asks Charlie toward the end. Like everything else in this harsh and intensely beautiful movie, the question applies as much to the nation rising up around him.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.