Martin Koolhoven’s brutal, biblical western, Brimstone, is an intense and astonishingly violent affair; a punishing depiction of life in frontier times. The Dutch writer-director has crafted an unflinching look at how patriarchal society functioned in a predominantly lawless era, set against the gorgeously bleak backdrop of the Old West.
Dakota Fanning plays Liz, a mute midwife living in tranquil peace with her husband Eli (William Houston, her stepson and her daughter. When a new preacher (Guy Pearce) turns up in town she appears instantly terrified of him, though we don’t know why. There’s obviously a shared history between them and the story is told in four chapters that each reveal a little more of their past.
Told out of chronological order, each chapter – Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution – builds on the momentum of the last, ratcheting up the tension and palpable sense of impending dread. When the violence is intermittently unleashed it’s visceral and gory, an uncompromising portrayal of the evil men are capable of. It’s a theme that runs through the entire narrative; almost all of the men that populate the story feel the need to exert their dominance over women, both psychological and physical. When these women invariably rise up against oppression they are cruelly beaten back down.
Fanning is great in a role that requires vulnerability and quiet resilience but it is the younger iteration of Liz’s character, played by Emilia Jones who does the heavy lifting. She’s stubborn and courageous in the face of tyranny and she refuses to let herself be subjected to the will of fearsome men. Then there’s Guy Pearce’s reverend. He’s a monstrous creation, a tour de force of barely contained rage and brimming with murderous contempt. Blinded to the heinousness of his actions under the guise of doing God’s will, he’s incredible to watch, a searing vessel of the fire and brimstone ethos of the Old Testament. It’s Pearce’s best performance in years, utterly magnetic and compelling.
Koolhoven’s confident hand both on scripting duties and behind the camera ensures that not a single minute of the almost two and a half hour runtime is wasted. It’s a gripping story, beautifully framed and paced out. Cinematographer Rogier Stoffers makes the most of the untamed landscape and the film is full of striking imagery. Missteps are few and far between, but do include a midway cameo from Kit Harrington whose wounded cowboy feels like a caricature amongst a more fleshed out, complex cast. It should also be stated that at times the film is unnecessarily grim and mainstream moviegoers may find it too sadistic to provide any meaningful payoff.
Brimstone is a bruising, merciless Western that makes no apologies for its unflinching violence and jarring brutality. Filled with some great performances, it’s an operatic tale of reckoning where the sins of the past rarely go unpunished.