If Dutch writer/director Martin Koolhovan wanted to make an impact with his first English language feature, he’s certainly achieved that goal with Brimstone. A Western/Thriller revenge tale, with strong biblical overtones, it doesn’t skimp on the graphic violence and unsettling themes.
Koolhovan has crafted a particularly savage old west setting. There are no friendly cowpokes or lovable town drunks here. Patriarchy rules in this land, often violently, with woman reduced to being second class citizens. From this we are introduced to Dakota Fanning’s Liz, a mute midwife living with her husband Eli (William Houston), stepson (Jack Hollington) and daughter (Ivy George) in a small town of settlers of Dutch origin. The audience is not given much else to go on until a mysterious new Preacher (Guy Pearce) turns up. His mere presence instantly strikes debilitating fear into Liz, at this point for unknown reasons. He quickly shows his threatening nature, eventually turning murderous.
How the film explains what those unknown reasons are is one of it’s greatest strengths. Told in four chapters, titled ‘Revelation’, ‘Exodus’ ‘Genesis’ and ‘Retribution’ with the first three running in reverse order, Memento style, gradually revealing more character and plot detail. Chapters two and three focus on Liz as a younger girl (Emilia Jones) on the cusp of womanhood and with her connection to the Preacher gradually explained. Before the final chapter sees us launch forward to a brutal if slightly lackluster conclusion. This episodic structure is executed brilliantly, with each part feeling like a gripping short story within the larger tale. And with the total run-time coming in at just under 2 and a half hours, It helps keeps your interest levels high.
Dakota Fanning turns in perhaps her best performance to date. Despite being mute for the majority of her screen time, she emotes raw emotion with ease. When she initially claps eyes on the Preacher, you can almost feel the fear pulsating through the screen. A long suffering victim of the harsh world she inhabits, a strong willed resolve is still always evident within her. Guy Pearce gives an intense and commanding performance as the Preacher. With a menacing stride and black holes for eyes, It’s the kind of antagonist role that could have easily slipped into scenery chewing caricature in lesser hands. This character is a monstrous, malevolent man and Pearce always credibly conveys that without going over the top. The supporting cast all chip in fine displays. Game of Thrones alumni Kit Harington and Carice Van Houten pop up as a somewhat friendly gunslinger and Liz’s mentally broken mother respectively. Paul Anderson is suitably sleazy as a brothel owner from Liz’s past. The child actors are, thankfully, all excellent, lending mature and credible performances to proceedings, Jones in particular stands out. But it’s the two leads that are quite rightfully front and center throughout.
The cinematography by Rogier Stoffers is strikingly effective. One memorable scene see’s the silhouette of the Preacher gazing upon a burning house. And a sombre, fitting soundtrack by Dutch composer Junkie XL (Perhaps best known for his excellent work on Mad Max : Fury Road) both add positively to the overall experience. The end pay-off probably isn’t quite as satisfying as the viewer would perhaps want, but it’s acceptable and far from a cop-out.
As I alluded to earlier, this is a film that isn’t afraid to go to some dark places. Violence and degradation are in ample supply. Rape, child abuse and incest are all themes running throughout. It’s not an easy watch at times, and some viewers will no doubt find it abhorrent and quite unpleasant. In my opinion it never goes overboard with what it actually depicts, and I think it would belittle the brutal nature of the story if it were to be sanitized. But this is a subject were everyone’s tolerance threshold will be different.
So, some controversial subject matter and graphic violence will no doubt divide the audience. It’s often a fine line between creative endeavor and bad taste, so what side of that line you fall on will impact your experience with the film. For me personally, I think Martin Koolhovan has created a raw and powerful film in Brimstone. Like the similarly brutal Bone Tomahawk, It’s a welcome injection of revitalisation into the Western genre. It pushes a few boundaries and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as a result, but that’s no bad thing if you ask me.
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