The darker side of Nick Cave -- After decades of addiction and a career on the edge, the singer-songwriter applies his lyrical aesthetic to ''The Proposition''

Growing up in the small outback town of Wangaratta, Australia, Nick Cave would dress up in his finest clothes every Sunday and sing about love, death, God, and the devil in the church choir. In a strange way, he’s never stopped. Cave is 48 now, and these days his Sunday best runs more toward fashionably slim charcoal suits from Savile Row with pink pinstripes, topped by a cascade of long black hair and a Fu Manchu mustache. But the stories that still fascinate him are the ones about doomed souls desperate for salvation, a category in which he includes himself.

For the past 25 years, first as the lead singer of the slash-and-burn punk band the Birthday Party and then with the Bad Seeds, Cave has been obsessed with a kind of savage grace, even if he’s been more of a sinner. Cave was a heroin addict, albeit a high-functioning one, for two decades. And his first band was famous in the early ’80s for its raw live shows that set a punishing new standard for self-destructive mayhem. On stage, Cave reveled in the role of the doomed junkie poet leading a sermon that was part Holy Roller tent revival and part satanic Black Mass. ”Of all the books I’ve read, the Bible is certainly the one that’s influenced me the most,” says Cave in his slow and stretchy Down Under accent. ”It’s all over what I do.”

Like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Cave is the rare singer-songwriter whose lyrics actually beg to be read without music. Take ”The Mercy Seat,” a harrowing dirge by the Bad Seeds sung from the point of view of a death-row inmate on his way to the electric chair:

”I hear stories from the chamber/Christ was born into a manger/Like some ragged stranger, died upon the cross/And might I say it seems so fitting in its way he was a carpenter by trade/Or at least that’s what I’m told….”

Many of Cave’s most powerful songs belong to a mini-genre known as the murder ballad — the kind of stark, old-fashioned Southern gothic tale where a character might shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. And since the death of Johnny Cash three years ago, Cave has had the genre virtually to himself. But while Cave’s latest story is concerned with all of the same black themes as a traditional murder ballad, it’s not a song. It’s almost too grand to be a song, actually. Which is fine, because it’s a movie.

Set in the Australian outback in the 1880s, The Proposition is a brutal Western about three outlaw brothers: the naive youngest, Mikey (Richard Wilson); the morally torn middle brother, Charlie (Guy Pearce); and the oldest, Arthur (Danny Huston), a ruthless killer. After Charlie and Mikey are arrested, Charlie is told he can save his younger brother’s life by hunting down and killing the eldest.

The Proposition is Cave’s first solo screenplay. And not surprisingly, there’s something almost biblical about the simple brother-versus-brother story. It’s like a murder ballad told on celluloid instead of vinyl. ”I’ve known Nick for 20 years,” says the film’s director, John Hillcoat. ”I knew he was a narrative songwriter and good with words, but I didn’t know he’d be able to write a script. This just poured out of him in three weeks.”