Brimstone * ½ / *****
Directed by: Martin Koolhoven.
Written by: Martin Koolhoven.
Starring: Dakota Fanning (Liz), Guy Pearce (The Reverend), Kit Harington (Samuel), Carice van Houten (Anna), Emilia Jones (Joanna), Jack Roth (Wolf), Jack Hollington (Matthew), Paul Anderson (Frank), Carla Juri (Elizabeth), Vera Vitali (Sally), William Houston (Eli), Bill Tangradi (Nathan).
Martin Koolhoven spent years trying to get his epic Western Brimstone made – turning down Hollywood money in order to get finale cut, having to make last minute casting changes when people dropped out, and basically driving himself insane in order to put his vision on the screen. It’s the type of story that becomes legendary – but only if you end up making a great movie, which sadly Koolhoven did not with Brimstone. This is a plodding two-and-a-half hour Western, with an intricate flashback structure that becomes more depraved the deeper inside the structure we go. Had there been some sort of reason for all this depravity, than perhaps it would okay. But there really isn’t – the themes of the movies seem to be little more than life at that time was hard, and religious people can be hypocrites. Good job.
The film opens with Liz (Dakota Fanning) a mute woman, with a husband, step-son and a beloved daughter, in her small Western town where she works as a midwife. The arrival of a new Reverend (Guy Pearce), a Dutch immigrant, unnerves her, but she never explains why. When after church service one day, a woman goes into labor, she jumps into action. She tells those around her that she can either save the life of the woman or the life of the child – not both – but is essentially ignored. She chooses to save the life of the woman – bringing the anger from the woman’s husband, and especially the Reverend down on her.
That’s the end of the first pretentious Chapter named after the book of a bible. The next two will dive back into Liz’s past that will eventually reveal her connection to The Reverend. It isn’t a pretty past, as what follows in these two middle sections are fairly graphic depictions of incest, rape, domestic abuse, suicide, murder, pedophilia and prostitution. There are scenes here where you genuinely do feel creeped out – basically because you wonder what the hell the set would have been like to hear Guy Pearce say some awful, perverted things to a child actress.
There is a tendency, and perhaps I have been guilty of it in the past, to view things that are darker, grimmer, more violent as more realistic in movies. This could be why we keep hearing that every reboot is going to be “gritty” when compared to the original – because obviously what we all want is more realistic depictions of Superman or the Power Rangers. It feels to me that is what Koolhoven was trying to do with Brimstone – make a darker, more realistic depiction on the American West – one in which people hide behind religion, while committing acts of violence and depravity. Fair enough, I suppose. But I do wish there was some sort of larger purpose behind it all. The film has a fine cast – all of whom throw themselves into their roles with abandon. Fanning once again still seems to be still trying to throw off the shackles of being a child star by appearing in this movie where she both commits violence and has violence committed against her, and is also at one point a smart mouthed prostitute. Pearce may sound kind of of goofy with his Dutch accent – but it sounded pretty spot on to me as someone who spent a lot of time with native Dutch speakers speaking English (that doesn’t necessarily mean he should have laid it on so thick). But Pearce is convincingly evil in the film to be sure. I also have to sing the praises of young Emilia Jones, if for no other reason than she endured a pretty shitty role for an actress would have been 13 when she filmed the movie. I feel almost as bad for Carice Van Houten – who has never landed a role as great as the one in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, her breakthrough – as her role is almost entirely one of pain and suffering. At least she was an adult though.
I’m not sure you can call Brimstone an exploitation movie – it would be better if it were one, because this film takes itself so damn seriously, and thinks it is saying something profound. It isn’t. It is a long, slow, grim slog to nowhere – a film that when it is turning you stomach with its depictions of violence – sexual and otherwise – it’s boring you to tears.