Director: Martin Koolhoven
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce
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Dakota Fanning is fantastic in this gruelling Western, which follows a mute midwife through a seemingly endless string of male-inflicted ordeals.
We first meet Liz (Fanning) as she plays content step-mother to a young daughter, teenage son and her loyal husband, Eli (William Houston). But their lives are disrupted by the arrival of the town’s new preacher. Eli, though, becomes distracted by Nathan, a man whose newborn baby dies during labour, leading the community to blame her – and he fails to see how the local man of the cloth fills Liz with a fear that seems to stem from his chilling, cold voice.
Guy Pearce is formidable as the ordained official, delivering sermons of righteous fury and vengeance with a clipped Dutch accent. His presence is so intimidating that it looms large over the whole script: director Martin Koolhoven takes us through four distinct chapters in Liz’s life, each one carrying a shadow of the patriarchal force Pearce’s preacher represents, a sickening strain of brutality that is passed down through generations.
The non-linear story gradually peels back the layers of Liz’s unspoken anguish, but also widens the film’s scope to witness more suffering; in contrast to her happy domestic situation, we spend one chapter in the claustrophobic confines of a marriage between Joanna (Emilia Jones) and her stern father, who takes more interest in her than in his wife (Carice van Houten). Into these tableaux of cruelty stroll archetypes and tropes from the genre, such as a badly wounded outlaw who needs taking care in secret, or a revenge-filled figure from the past storming through icy mountains to exact fiery retribution.
Koolhoven frames the bursts of grisly violence against the quiet moments of emotional consequence with a poetic eye. The best moments, tellingly, occur in the middle segment, which sees Joanna sold to a brothel owned by nasty-nice-guy Frank (Paul Anderson), where she finds a collective strength (and warm humour) in the sisterly solidarity of the women who work there.
There’s some power in the portrayal of a woman repeatedly proving resilience in the face of persecution, but Brimstone wants to have its title and eat it – the movie seems so keen to prove how nasty its villain(s) can be that it descends into gruesome behaviour for the sake of it. Koolhoven marks himself out as a director with a knack for style, tension and horror, but his puzzle-box of pain loses some of its impact with every new layer.
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