An apocalyptic pall hangs over this western from Dutch writer-director Martin Koolhoven, from its ominous title to its spectacular yet bleak landscapes. Some movies have a tendency to romanticise what life was like on the American frontier; Brimstone, on the other hand, is so witheringly violent that it makes Bone Tomahawk look like Paint Your Wagon.
Dakota Fanning stars as Elizabeth, a mute midwife who has the thankless task of delivering babies at a time when childbirth is fraught with danger. And on the day that one delivery goes tragically wrong, a scarred, glowering Reverend (Guy Pearce) shows up to tell Liz that she must be punished for her sins…
Koolhoven’s sordid tale of abuse, sadism and revenge might be impossible to sit through were it not for construction: the opening 40 minutes introduces its two leads, before cutting back to an earlier episode in Liz’s life, and then back again to an even sorrier saga. This disrupted flow creates an absorbing sense of mystery, only gradually revealing the grim connection between the self-appointed man of God and the woman he’s strangely obsessed with.
The further into the story we go, however, the more sadistic the events become, to the point where the catalogue of violence and cruelty becomes voluminous past the point of absurdity. The aim of Koolhoven’s story is clear from its mid-point onwards: Brimstone is about the horrific way women are treated by men, both past and present. It’s a timely enough subject, particularly given the reports we’ve seen in the news about supposedly respectable public figures using their fame and power to abuse women. Guy Pearce’s Reverend becomes a kind of nightmare amalgam of every entitled, depraved man who ever lived, a monster with an almost supernatural ability to track Liz wherever she goes.
Yet Koolhoven, by making his scenes of bloodshed so graphic and numerous, only serves to diminish his own argument. Fanning, with her haunted expression and silent resolve, puts in a superb performance, but Brimstone spends an inordinate, punishing amount of time putting Liz through the wringer. Like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – particularly Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 adaptation – the film winds up feeling like a leering exploitation picture masquerading as a message movie.
Pearce looks and sounds the part as the Dutch Bible basher with the neatly-trimmed beard – Robert Mitchum’s classic turn in Night Of The Hunter appears to be an inspiration – but Koolhoven’s dedication to excess just makes the Reverend into a flatly evil cipher. Had Brimstone been a 90-minute horror-thriller, then having Liz pursued by the religious equivalent of Jason Voorhees might have worked; in a film pushing the 150-minute mark, it just feels pretentious and exhausting. Ironically, the Reverend might have been a scarier character had he been given more nuance; a manipulator whose psychopathy is concealed by his charisma.
From a technical perspective, Brimstone is handsomely shot and mounted, with Rogier Stoffers’ photography bringing a stark sense of grubby toughness to the wintry settings. Koolhoven also makes an intelligent use of overhead shots to create a constant sense of unease; they always seem to come just before the Reverend appears, which gives the impression that he’s somewhere outside the frame, watching like an angel of death.
Junkie XL provides an unsettling soundtrack, too, though Koolhoven, who isn’t much for subtlety, has a tendency to overuse its more sonorous passages. This, really, the root problem with Brimstone: it’s well-made and no doubt well-meaning, but its power is ultimately diminished by its histrionics. Like one of the Reverend’s angry sermons, Brimstone drones on long after it’s made its point.
Brimstone screens at the London Film Festival on the 15th October.