Described as a film which ‘pulls no punches‘ and threatens to overhaul the very idea of a frontier/Western film, Martin Koolhoven‘s Brimstone is a one of a kind. I don’t necessarily mean that in a good way.
Dakota Fanning plays Liz Bundy, a woman who has been handed a pretty terrible lot in life. In Brimstone’s first act, Revelations, we see her going about her day as a midwife, with her young daughter in tow. Things aren’t amazing for Liz in the frontier life, but she’s got a nice husband, nice kids and an alright job. That is, until a stranger rolls into town. Into the town church, to be accurate.
Yes, Liz’s antagonist, and soon to be uber-villain, is The Reverend (Guy Pearce), a fanatical religious preacher with an apparent chip on his shoulder. Initially, he appears to have beef with Liz due to her decision to save a local woman instead of the woman’s unborn child, but it unravels that this is only the tip of the iceberg with these two. It’s looking quite bad for Liz, and it gets a whole lot worse before it gets better, but The Reverend has a history with Liz that he is just very unwilling to let go of.
What follows is a three part torturous narrative (for both the characters and the viewer), continually travelling backwards in time, and concluding in some sort of plot twist that the majority of the audience probably saw coming within the first ten minutes. Brimstone has an impressive supporting cast in addition to Fanning and Pearce – Carice Van Houten, Kit Harrington and Paul Anderson all make appearances. It certainly has all the elements to be an epic rejuvenated frontier flick, so what exactly went wrong?
In keeping with the Western theme, Brimstone certainly has its own good, bad and ugly moments – and sticks closely to those ratios. Dakota Fanning is certainly a highlight, playing a mute character for at least a third of the film. She manages to give an impressive performance only using her facial expressions and body language. We are introduced to Liz as a mute, and Fanning communicates so well visually, that we are able to empathise and identify with her straight off the bat. The reason behind Liz’s condition is heartbreaking, not to mention how it adds to the overt religious symbolism throughout the film (you know, ‘a woman must be silent in Church…’ all that jazz).
Stylistically, Koolhoven opts for traditional production design and costume – fitting the frontier setting.
Continuous religious iconography and symbolism seep onto the screen, reminding us at all times that this a film where religious fundamentalism seeks to dig its fingers into every corner of society. This is evident with the not so subtle pro-choice/pro-life metaphor at the beginning of the film, and the punishment of women for simply being women throughout the rest of the film. Whilst Brimstone firmly criticises the misogyny levelled at all of the female characters, it simultaneously seems to enjoy showing violence against them. This leaves its message a little confused – are we supposed to be critical of this frontier world, or are we supposed to understand it as just the way things were back then?
There is also something to be said for Guy Pearce’s performance as The Reverend – the terrifying and relentless villain. It’s a new role for Pearce, as someone who usually gets at least semi-sympathetic roles. He brings an interesting dynamic to a character who has quite dry dialogue, using the space between his words to instil real fear in the audience and Liz alike.
Ultra Violence + Archetypes
Though Brimstone has its moments, the real problem is that it feels like one violent sequence after another. Whilst some of the violence is justified by the plot, the vast majority of it feels like it is only included to shock the viewers (or to see just how much psychological/physical trauma can be inflicted upon Fanning). It makes for pretty uncomfortable viewing, and not in the way I expect Koolhoven intended.
Rather than feeling pity or sympathy for the characters on the receiving end of The Reverend’s violence, we are instead left wondering why we are being subjected to this. It feels completely unnecessary to the plot or to the development of the characters. It’s established within the first act that The Reverend is a really nasty piece of god-fearing work, so it feels superfluous to the narrative to keep showing what is essentially the same scene over and over again.
This seemingly unending violence isn’t helped by the film’s running time – a laborious 2 and half hours. I might be slightly biased because I belong firmly to the camp which believes good movies should never exceed an hour and a half (with a few exceptions) but Brimstone really had no business being the length of even one Lord of the Rings film. The three act narrative was definitely an interesting structure, but there were plenty of minutes that could have been shaved off from each one. Brimstone includes a myriad of overlong sequences, with a lot of the screen-time filled up with characters simply staring at one another. Long moments of silence can be used effectively, sure, but in Brimstone they felt redundant and only added to the already elongated run-time.
Brimstone brings up a lot of questions about religious extremism and fundamentalism, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel invested in Liz’s character and journey. The oppression, exploitation and punishment of women is central to the narrative, but sadly Brimstone doesn’t allow its characters to be much more than cardboard cutouts.
Koolhoven describes the film as a story about ‘powerful womanhood’, but it feels pretty distorted to claim a film which depicts the gratuitous torture, rape and stalking of a young woman could be empowering on any level. We also can’t ignore the fact that Liz is physically silenced, and though this is seen as a way out of a hellish situation, it’s also a choice made by Koolhoven within the script. Not empowering.
What could have been a really interesting film with a unique narrative turns into a pretty grotesque film instead, with tropes rather than well-rounded characters. If you’ve got two and a half hours to spare, and you don’t mind watching a shed load of abuse directed at women, then Brimstone has got you covered!
What did you think of Brimstone? Is it an epic Western masterpiece or a big old mess? Let us know in the comments!
Brimstone is in UK cinemas from the 29th of September. See website for screening details.
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