“My soul is damned. I can do whatever I want.”
If there really is an interventionist God, then why do the innocent suffer? How can violence be done in the name of the Lord and rather than being punished be allowed to propagate? Sometimes one cannot rely on the intervention of a supreme being, or even a Good Samaritan. Sometimes the only course of action is to take things into your own hands and make your own fate. In Martin Koolhoven’s grimly violent Brimstone, these themes are explored in the frontier of the Old West, where women are the constant victims of men who proudly wield their self-appointed power, but, to paraphrase the Bible, “pride comes before the fall”.
Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a young, mute woman, living with her husband and two children on a farm outside a small town in the Old West. Then one day at the church the congregation meet their new Reverend (Guy Pearce), a fiercely puritan man who believes in the vengeful God of the Old Testament. Liz has a reaction of total fear toward the man and it quickly becomes clear they share a past which, across a series of flashbacks, becomes clear it is one of sadistic violence from which Liz has been trying to escape for years. Tired of running, Liz takes a final stand against the Reverend in order to end the cycle of abuse once and for all.
Steeped in the mythic resonance of the Western genre yet with a darkly realistic view of the conditions in which people lived, Brimstone pulls no punches in driving home its central themes of the corruption of power and the exploitation of women. Heavily influenced by The Night of the Hunter, writer/director Koolhoven also wants to comment on how the fight against male oppression is constant, and the little victories made by each generation allows the succeeding one to gain just that little bit of ground, which is welcome but never enough.
The way Koolhoven achieves this is through four chapters, which intriguingly are presented in non-linear order. The film begins at its conclusion and then moves backward through the Reverend’s pursuit of Liz across the frontier until their true relationship is revealed. This technique, while providing narrative tension in a unique way, also draws attention to the exploration of its central themes. The experiences of the women and their horrible treatment at the hands of men is portrayed in an unflinching way, with the backwards nature of the narrative making it clear how a lot of these events and attitudes are still alive today, despite the progress that has been made there is still a long way to go. However, this is almost entirely undone by the film’s eventual tip over into generic horror film territory.
While the nature of the film does call to mind the particular sub-genre of the dangerous stranger or abusive family member (e.g. The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), for the majority of the narrative it stays on just the right side of it without descending into histrionics. It does sometimes wallow a little too long in the misery of some of its characters yet this feels appropriate to the story Koolhoven is trying to tell. Unfortunately, at one point he pushes it way too far toward the horror genre and the film loses the tension it so expertly built in the preceding scenes, and some of the final moments feel like they are from a completely different film altogether.
That the film doesn’t fall completely apart at this point it partly due to the strength of the rest of the film and also to the performances. Dakota Fanning is incredible as the strong, steadfast Liz whose life of suffering has created a strong, resilient woman who realises she has the power to change her circumstances. Game of Thrones alums Kit Harrington and Carice van Houten appear briefly and acquit themselves well in minor roles, but Guy Pearce is the central force of this film. As The Reverend he is pure evil incarnate and while it would be wrong to say he relishes the opportunity to play such an irredeemable monster, he is able to find those darkest depths within himself to become truly terrifying in the extreme.
A grimly beautiful film about an upsetting yet very relevant subject matter, Brimstone uses the Western genre in a way that is rarely seen; as a somewhat realistic portrayal of the hard living and suffering on the frontier, told from the female perspective. There is a mythic element which brings a much darker, almost supernatural aspect to the narrative which in its non-linear order allows for a more original point of view, brought to life by brilliant performances. If only the film didn’t play its hand a little too forcefully towards the end and fall too much into genre tropes.
Note: This review originally appeared on October 14, 2016.