The Proposition (18)<br/> The Child (L'Enfant) (12A)

God's own hell on earth
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Lars von Trier ended his last two films Dogville and Manderlay, in case we hadn't got his point, with photo- montages illustrating his view of America - documentary images of poverty, racism and injustice. John Hillcoat's The Proposition presents its own capsule view of Australian history in the opening credits: 19th-century images (mainly authentic, apparently) show one-horse settlements amid sandy desolation; their inhabitants, hollow-eyed in bowlers and crinolines; rows of genteelly poised dead in their coffins; Aborigines in chains guarded by troopers. Over it all, a little girl sings, "There is a happy land..." This, say the pictures, is God's Own Country - but its harshness is nothing compared to what follows.

If the bile and brimstone of Nick Cave's songwriting have waned slightly of late, they re-emerge at full strength in his script for this outback Western, directed by Hillcoat, with whom he worked on the unjustly forgotten prison film Ghosts... of the Civil Dead (1988). Together, Cave and Hillcoat summon up the darker, wilder spirits of the Western tradition to make something that's unmistakably a genre exercise but is also quintessentially Australian. Thoughtful and literate as it is, The Proposition represents the Western at its most macho and sanguinary. The narrative is spare in a way that doesn't entirely satisfy - though, given the setting, you can see it's aiming at the starkness of myth.

In the Outback of the 1880s, British captain Maurice Stanley (Ray Winstone) is after a family of bushrangers wanted for rape and murder. He captures two of them, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and his younger brother Mikey, then offers Charlie a deal: head out into the wild and kill his psychopathic older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or else Mikey hangs on Christmas Day. Charlie accepts the mission, but it's a dead cert from the start that vengeance will catch up with Stanley before the festive turkey is carved.

For all the Biblical beards on show, this frontier Australia is strictly godforsaken. The prime embodiment of Christian civilisation, who coolly orders Mikey's savage flogging, is landowner Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), a memorably nasty portrayal of neat, tweedy viciousness. It's clear that Hillcoat and Cave have more sympathy for humanity when it's openly feral: for Charlie, who increasingly resembles a freshly exhumed corpse, and for the unimaginably murderous Arthur, first seen scowling through the night like a cross between Colonel Kurtz and the Wolf Man. The prize monster here - and the most Caveian - is John Hurt's grandly literary bounty hunter, with a face of baked leather, who goes out croaking lines from George Borrow.

The film was shot in Queensland in murderous heat, giving a brutal authenticity both to the setting and to the actors' sweaty, tormented appearance. Hillcoat and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme share a fascination for inhospitably arid plains, rocky chasms, arthritic tree roots: a striking image shows Charlie on horseback, a silver branch dividing the night sky behind him like a lightning bolt. Delhomme musters parched yellows that haven't been seen since the early 1970s of Leone, Peckinpah and Malick, and red tones that leech blood even from metal: as in the startlingly dynamic opening, as a tin shack is riddled with gunfire.

The Proposition depicts hell on earth, quite simply: no one is untouched by punitive impulses, even Stanley's sweet-natured wife Martha (Emily Watson), who supports Mikey's flogging. But there's also a moving tenderness between Stanley and Martha, who swap affectionate repartee as they try to live the proper Victorian life protected by picket fences and rose bushes; Winstone's and Watson's subtle, careworn performances mercifully leaven an otherwise unforgiving film.

The end may not be entirely satisfying - cathartic conflagration rather than resolution as such - but as an exercise in creating an oppressively enclosed world, and as a bitter comment on Australia's colonial history, the film is a stunning achievement. As well as terse dialogue with a plausible historical ring, Cave also contributes a haunting, near-skeletal soundtrack in collaboration with demon violinist Warren Ellis. Certainly the harshest, grimmest Western since Peckinpah ruled the prairie, this is also the closest any film has yet come to capturing the flavour of Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel Blood Meridian.

Over now to the badlands of Belgium, and the second Cannes Palme d'Or winner from the Dardenne brothers. The Dardennes make marvellous films, against all odds: after all, they simply tell downbeat, naturalistic stories of disadvantaged people within the narrow confines of Seraing, a small industrial town near Liege (I've been there, and believe me, it's even drearier in real life). Hardly "torn from today's headlines", the Dardennes' stories might be culled from page five of the Seraing Gazette. Yet the brothers' sustained attention to the minutiae of existence below fiction's usual radar creates films of concentrated, and strangely uplifting, brilliance.

In The Child, teenage mother Sonia (Déborah François) has just had a baby, but can't quite get her boyfriend Bruno (Jérémie Renier) to act like a responsible father. Preoccupied with a career in small-time theft, Bruno decides to sell the hapless child. Yet if this sounds harrowing, it's not: the stakes of the drama rise when Bruno, the real child of the title, realises it's time to grow up.

A world away from The Proposition's savage pessimism, The Child offers understated, pragmatic humanism, albeit of a rigorously detached kind. This is masterly, no-frills storytelling, and there's even an action climax - or the nearest you're likely to find in Belgian low-budget realism.