I had a very negative reaction to Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone. Sorry… Koolhoven’s Brimstone, as the opening title states. It’s not just its unrelenting bleakness, nor its explicit brutality, nor its rampant self-satisfaction – these would be bad enough on their own – it’s mainly because Brimstone lingers for so long (148 minutes to be exact) on the myriad ways in which women can suffer, that it forgets to offer any kind of redemption, or purpose, or point. It’s just cruel.
Brimstone is told in four chapters. You’re know in for a long haul when a film is split into chapters. And it’s 50/50 on whether it will be a pretentious pile of horseshit too. The film centres on Liz (Dakota Fanning), a mute midwife raising a family in 19th century mid-west America. Her life is suddenly thrust into damnable hellfire with the horrifying delivery of a dead baby and the arrival of a Reverend, whose eyes are as black as his heart. Think a less charming Robert Mitchum from The Night of The Hunter with the subtlety of Freddy Krueger.
Guy Pearce is bravely committed to inhabiting the evil nameless Reverend, a character that will flagellate, beat, murder, molest, rape and strangle someone with their own intestines long before descending into even broader slasher movie monster tropes by the end. That’s sort of the point though. He’s meant to be the devil incarnate, and there’s ambiguity around his supernatural nature, but that’s the terminal undoing of Brimstone. It’s a movie that deals in such broad, lurid brushstrokes that it feels offensive to the suffering of the women and children at its core.
And Holy Christ on the cross, do these women and children suffer.
Dakota Fanning is expressive and anxious as Liz, and you cling to her presence throughout Brimstone, but sadly the film doesn’t do Fanning’s performance any justice. At best, Brimstone lacks subtlety – as the flames of fire lick around the Reverend’s face you know this isn’t going to be a nuanced affair. Brimstone presents a comic book rendition of evil. Actually that’s unfair to comic books. This is a pantomime rendition of evil. Only imagine that the villain in your local Town Hall production of Dick Whittington is heavily into forced incest. And that’s Brimstone at its worst. It’s just utterly sadistic, without any purpose other than to glorify every last possible act of brutality or sexual violence against women.
Early interesting ideas around Liz taking it upon herself to decide who lives and who dies during the birth scene (a choice only allowed by God in this puritanical society – and by extension The Reverend) are abandoned for bludgeoningly obvious symbolism and bludgeoningly gruesome bludgeonings.
This is partly a fault of the construct of the film. Its first three chapters are played out in reverse order, and although the extra work for the viewer is no hardship – it’s just difficult to see the point of this choice other than a gimmicky way to hide its own twists and artificially elevate the drama. It doesn’t make any thematic sense, it just feels like a cheat. The editing and a stirring orchestral score do much of the heavy lifting, but can’t hide a paucity of ideas and a weak script.
There are multiple times where you think to yourself “why am I watching this?” – the moment where a 13 year-old Liz is forced to watch a man sexually abuse a prostitute is the first of so, so many moments where I look back now and go, “yeah I should have walked out then.” But what kept me committed was an innate belief that all of this will be worth it in the end. Surely there will be something important said? Surely this unrelenting march of misery-porn will culminate in something worthwhile? THERE’S NEARLY THREE HOURS OF THIS FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE WHY AM I STILL HERE? You don’t have to make the same mistake I did.
Brimstone reconfigures the classic western in the style of a rape-revenge horror film, using the exploitation of violence against women as its hook. Any catharsis that may be attempted is either too little too late, or outright undermined. Liz Brundy’s suffering never ends, and neither will yours. 1/5