"What fresh hell is this?" mutters Winstone's Stanley as he surveys the fly-infested, dust-blown wilderness that has become his latest stomping ground. But as John Hillcoat's existential Western unfolds, it soon becomes clear that all its characters are in one hell or another, often of their own choosing. Beginning with a bloody, chaotic shoot-out that recalls Sam Peckinpah at his finest, this bold, brilliant and utterly bizarre saga moves into rich, psychological territory as it explores the ramifications of a demonic proposal even Old Nick might baulk at making. Shot through with flashes of striking visual poetry that make its bursts of claret-soaked violence all the more shocking, it's the best horse opera since Unforgiven.
With only his second script, Aussie singer Nick Cave brings an offbeat sensibility to a genre caked in cliché. On an arid, sun-baked continent, there's something inherently absurd about a couple sitting down to Christmas dinner in their Sunday finest. But it's an image that sums up the doomed attempts of Australia's English colonisers to impose their own ideals on a world that defies rationality. "I will civilise this land!" grimaces Stanley, but he's fighting a losing battle - not least because the forces of law and order, represented by David Wenham's supercilious, Aborigine-hating sadist, are capable of as much senseless brutality as Danny Huston's psychotic bushranger.
The drama in Hillcoat's hypnotic film arises from Winstone and Pearce's struggle to uphold the respective ends of their unholy bargain. In the outback, Charlie finds himself seduced once again by Huston's charismatic madman, a butcher whose lunacy seems the only just response to the barbarism he sees around him. Back in town, Stanley is powerless to stop simpleton Mikey (Wilson) being whipped to ribbons by a lynch mob - an unsettling, graphic scene made even more harrowing by the ballad accompanying it. All is in place for a climactic bloodbath whose tragic inevitability doesn't make it any less forceful.
The performances are universally superb, with particular kudos going to John Hurt as a deranged bounty hunter who rescues Pearce from an Aborigine's spear. But it's the powerhouse combo of Hillcoat and Cave, finally delivering on the promise of 1988's prison drama Ghosts... Of The Civil Dead, that gives this strange, revisionist Western its distinctive, off-kilter feel.
Okay, it's a little slow, while the parallel plotlines result in some jarring narrative leaps. And though Huston's burly presence lends his character a welcome heft, his Irish accent sounds forced and phoney. Yet few movies in recent years have evoked such a haunting air of ominous dread and doom - making this Proposition an offer that's damn hard to refuse.