I really wanted to like Brimstone more than I actually did. There was so much to draw me to it – a western thriller described as being about ‘A frontier woman turns fugitive when she is wrongly accused of a crime she didn’t commit and is hunted by a vengeful preacher’. All good so far. My heart sank a bit when I saw the running time of 148 minutes (since Nolan managed to do much in 1hr40 that made Dunkirk – I’ve become far too snobby about running times!) It carried on sinking throughout the film. Whilst I’ve never thought of the American frontier times as being a barrel of laughs – confirmed by last year’s haunting The Witch – or that Calamity Jane (1953) was a realistic portrayal of the era, I wasn’t expecting a film that was as unrelentingly grim as this.
Bad things happen to poor mute Liz (Fanning) from the outset. From the very moment the new reverend, a man aptly called The Reverend (Pearce), takes to the pulpit it’s clear he’s bad news. Everything is used as a signifier to this fact – the lighting, the framing, the angles, the music and his accent (a rather too-distracting amalgamation of Dutch) – his power & wrath is quickly showcased. More bad things happen… then more bad things … then even more bad things. There’s a glimmer of hope… gone. There’s a nice seeming person… gone. The effect is a film that gets under your skin and lingers, rather unpleasantly, beyond watching – something I wouldn’t mind so much if it all actually meant anything.
There’s no grand messsage to proceedings, just continuous bad things undeservedly happening to a woman who did nothing to warrant it. In fact, the way Fanning’s character is humiliatingly condemned to all manner of sadistic abuse is incredibly painful to watch, slightly dated seeming and crass in its rawness. Daring would be one way of describing it, needlessly brutal would be another. The title, and the primary antagonist, both signpost to the films pontification about the nature of religion – although even after watching I’d be hardpressed to explain what the actual message being alluded to was.
For a film that has such a long (far too long) running time its minimal character development is made all the more frustrating. The Reverend is an evil man who does evil things. Liz is a good person who has bad things happen to her. All men, aside from Liz’s husband, are cruel and sadistic twonks – I think there’s a message here about patriarchy and needless abuse, which is less than a message than something most people agree with already. All of this plays out in a story that is convoluted, told in the format of four chapters that are not in chronological order, and requires a full stomach when enduring, not enjoying, watching it. There’s flogging, gore, mutilation, rape, incest, murder – all occurring continuously throughout. It’s not a poorly made film by any means; there’s occasionally beautiful cinematography and Junkie XL’s score more than does the job.
But, to quote Macbeth, ‘Hell is murky’. Hell is fire and Brimstone.
Dir: Martin Koolhoven
Scr: Martin Koolhoven,
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Kit Harington, Carice van Houten, Paul Anderson, Emilia Jones.
Prd: Els Vandevorst
DOP: Rogier Stoffers
Music: Junkie XL
Country: Netherlands, France, Germany, Sweden, United Kingdom
Run time: 148 minutes
Brimstone is in UK cinemas from Friday 29th September.