In his first book of collected writings, Aussie goth rocker and murder-on-the-mind crooner Nick Cave has a dramaturgical scrap called "Gun Play #3." The gist of this piece entails a man capering around a woman blindfolded on a stage before shooting her in the head with a large handgun. Curtain. Although Cave has come quite a long way in his writing from that point, it's not a scene that would be impossible to imagine in his first fully realized feature film script, The Proposition.

A hot and dusty western set in the barely "civilized" Australian outback of the 1880s, the film brings together a sterling cast to act out a revenge tragedy replete with the kind of grimly iconic man-horse-gun-sunset imagery rarely seen since Sergio Leone hung up his spurs. A family has been butchered in a most dreadful manner by the escaped outlaw Arthur Burns, most likely assisted by his captured brothers Charlie and Mikey. The closest thing to law in those parts, burnt-out Captain Stanley presents Charlie with a proposition: Find and kill Arthur within nine days, winning a pardon for yourself and young Mikey, or we hang Mikey on Christmas Day.

The Proposition is essentially two films just waiting to get at each other. In the first, Charlie (Guy Pearce, looking quite at home in the saddle) wanders through the blazing-hot outback looking for Arthur, played by the normally underused Danny Huston in a revelatory performance as a raving but charismatic psychopath with more than a little Kurtz to him. In the second, simpleminded Mikey (Richard Wilson) squirms in his cell while Stanley (Ray Winstone) waits for news from Charlie, trying in the meantime to placate his restless wife Martha (Emily Watson) and force a modicum of civilization on the rough townspeople, who would just as soon lynch the kid and slaughter every aboriginal they come across. When the plot strands finally come together, it's with a terrifying force that's both awful and thrilling to behold.

Plenty have wanted to elevate westerns to epic heights, and director John Hillcoat is no stranger to that desire. But while his is a film replete with Biblical and Conradian influences-not to mention a deliriously and wonderfully over-the-top John Hurt spitting out prolix 19th-century prose like a scholar gone mad in the heat-it never becomes imprisoned by it. The Proposition starts off in straight Peckinpah-land with Charlie and Mikey trapped in a shack by the constabulary, bullets pinging through the walls with maddening rapidity. From there, we're moved briskly through a series of sharply etched scenes which rarely skimp on the nastier aspects of life during this time, what with all the fly-buzzed corpses and wanton cruelty.

But while there's an undeniable gothic gloom haunting the film, Hillcoat and Cage are hardly mere sadistic stylists. The care given to relationships in the film-especially that between Stanley and his wife-and the deep field of acting talent on display belie any suspicion that it's nothing more than the sum of its creators' desire to make a western. Another welcome surprise is the attention paid by the filmmakers to their aboriginal characters, who wander through the movie with an innate grace and ease that contrasts vividly with the sweaty and uncomfortable whites, frantically trying to wrestle the unforgiving land into a simulacrum of life Back Home.

Very simply, this is the finest, strangest and most uncompromising western to hit screens since Unforgiven.

-Chris Barsanti