Told in four chapters, this is the grim and painful story of a woman dominated by men on the American frontier. The story is presented in Grand Guignol style with a feeling that writer/director Martin Koolhoven is behind it all winking at the audience. Take this film seriously and it is little but a pointlessly harrowing film experience. Accept it as an exaggerated horror story and it will be a considerably better film.
Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Sadism, bondage, hanging, prostitution, incest, murder and all manner of cruelty: they are all here. ‘Brimstone’ is part-feminist diatribe, part-exaggerated horror film and part-Western. Your reaction to the film may well be dependent on how seriously you take it. This is a Dutch-French-German co-produced western about the grim and bleak condition of women in the American frontier. In other words, it is a bunch of Europeans telling each other how bad Americans are.
A woman, Liz (played by Dakota Fanning), is persecuted because, as a midwife, she chose to save the life of a mother at the cost of the life of the baby. A preacher called ‘the Reverend’ (Guy Pearce with a deeply scarred face and worse scarred soul) exacts what he considers the proper, scripture-dictated, vengeance of God on the woman. His churchgoers just meekly submit to his will. ‘Brimstone’ was conceived, written and directed by Dutchman Martin Koolhoven. Atrocity follows on atrocity as women are abused and persecuted by the male-run society. The issues are righteous, but the accusations and abuses are laid onto the story a little thickly.
The film requires a strong performance from its villain to take him seriously enough and Guy Pearce is versatile enough to be taken as the evil prime mover of this society. I am unfamiliar with any film in which Pearce has projected malice as he does in this film, even falling to howl like a dog. It is as shocking as seeing Alan Arkin in ‘Wait Until Dark’ or Anthony Hopkins in ‘The Silence Of The Lambs.’ Dakota Fanning’s Liz walks a narrow step between placid and tense. She seems as meek as her neighbours but is ready to take care of herself. There is little doubt who will win in the end, but what will the viewer see along the way of the journey?
The film is 149 minutes long and told in four chapters. The second chapter tells how the first came about. The third chapter tells how the second came about. The final chapter wraps it all up after the first chapter. If the viewer is to sit there and take all of the abuses seriously, this is a very dismal film. This, however, is women’s history as seen through a Grand Guignol lens. That says that it needs to be taken with just a little grain of salt.
If the viewer sees ‘Brimstone’ as a serious look at the treatment an position of women in the American West, this film will quickly dip into a shocking and perhaps nauseating territory. If it is taken as a horror tale intended to do little more than shock this film will not disappoint. As a horror film, I rate ‘Brimstone’ a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10. Those who want to take seriously what is on the screen should take several rating points off.
‘Brimstone’ will go into limited release March 10th 2017.
Mark R. Leeper
(c) Mark R. Leeper 2017