In Brimstone, a defiant Dakota Fanning is pursued across the American frontier by Guy Pierce’s demonic Dutch preacher. Told in reverse across three time periods, Martin Koolhoven’s theological Western horror has been cinematic marmite on the festival circuit. While it is certainly not the masterpiece some have suggested, neither is it an outright flop. Tacky yet artful, playful yet leadenly self-serious: Brimstone is a mess of contradictions.
The story starts not at the beginning, but near the end. A kindly farmer (William Houston) lives with his mute wife Liz (Fanning) and their young daughter. To Liz’s undisclosed horror, their local church gets a new reverend (Pierce), who quickly inserts himself into their otherwise tranquil life. Things turn rough (I won’t get specific) and, at something of an impasse, Brimstone jumps backwards in time several years, showing us the story of a young runaway who finds work in the brothel of a classical western Frontier town. The two girls, we soon gather, are one and the same, and we witness this same plot format played out thrice – an ever-younger Liz encountering the sadistic reverend at every juncture. There’s a hint of Lemony Snicket to Pierce’s constant Count Olafian reappearances, especially when paired with Fanning’s why-won’t-you-listen-to-me pleas to an indifferent audience of strangers.
“Tacky yet artful, playful yet leadenly self-serious: Brimstone is a mess of contradictions.”
Director Koolhoven has described it as a passion project; that much should be self-evident. The number of creative risks taken here, from the top downwards (structurally, right down to individual shots) is pretty staggering, and certainly enough to keep your expectations on their toes. However, only some of these risks pay dividends. Unnecessary gore, arch symbolism and ham-fisted religious semantics leave Brimstone stuck in perpetual battle with its own demons. Too often, the film slips into a mode of religious melodrama that comes across only as goofy. It is a dark film, almost all-encompassingly dark. Liz fits the ‘strong female protagonist’ cliché in a lot of ways, but the film seems to revel so much in the potential – the cinematic, visual, poetic potential – of evil, that the presentation of ‘good’ seems trite and un-nuanced.
Fanning doesn’t dissappoint in the lead role, but Pearce is another matter. Having to (or choosing to) affect a Dutch accent takes its toll on his coviction of delivery; by the end of the film, however, his character is so hellishly overblown that accent or tone is largely immaterial. The single person who emerges from Brimstone with their head held highest is Rogier Stoffers, the cinematographer. The film is gorgeous, with a clean and generally expensive-seeming aesthetic. Different environments (snow-covered valleys, dusty western plains) are shot with a great eye for colour and focus.
There is no shortage of ambition to Brimstone. It is a bulging, unwieldy mass of creative risks, both commendable and ill-advised, precariously piled into a tower. Such a structure can’t help but buckle; it is to the film’s credit that the wreckage is spectacle enough to hold our attention.
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