This film might as well have been called “Pain in Four Part Harmony”. Brimstone is a vicious film, filled with terrible people doing terrible things to people who don’t deserve what befalls them. It’s a Western, but it’s also a horror film. It’s a two-fold revenge tale where children are murdered, men are disemboweled, and women take to nooses like moths to a flame. I sit here with such a bitter taste in my mouth that I can’t believe I’m recommending the film.
Martin Koolhoven is the man behind this madness, a director from the Netherlands making his English language debut. His most notable work prior to Brimstone was his 2008 drama, Winter in Wartime, which bares no resemblance to the work he’s given us after an eight year hiatus. And he obviously thinks highly of himself since he even brands the title of the film with his last name – “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”. I had a problem with Winding-Refn did it with The Neon Demon and have a problem with it here. You have to earn something like that and – when you do – you would never need to do it. But, whereas Winding-Refn is branding a distinct visual style and tone, Koolhoven seems to be bringing a sense of desolation and pain.
Told in four non-sequential chapters, Brimstone begins with the arrival of a new preacher to town (Guy Pearce), a dark man who speaks heavy on scripture and its literal interpretation. We immediately know that Liz (Dakota Fanning) has seen the man before and doesn’t like that he is back in her life. She has a husband, a daughter, and a step-son and works as a midwife, and we know, without the film telling us, that she has built this life for herself. Oh, did I mention that she is mute because her tongue has been removed? Events happen that send Liz on the run and we flashback to see how things came to become so bleak. And, unfortunately, giving you any more detail is probably detrimental to your enjoyment of it. Just know that terrible things happen, over and over again, to people who don’t deserve it. And Kit Harington shows up in a pretty thankless role as an injured cowboy. I have to wonder if that role was cut down quite a bit.
Visually, Brimstone does little in the way of cinema. It’s not striking in the way you might expect a film like it to be. It decided long before shooting began that it was going to be far more Ravenous than The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. It’s brutal, so what’s the use of pretty cinematography? I do think some flare behind the lens would have opened the film up a bit and maybe made it more palatable. It’s difficult to invest in a two and a half hour film when everything we’re seeing is the same hue and just feels oily and sadistic. I am sure that was by design, but Koolhaven would have been better served letting the visuals strengthen the tone of the piece rather than have them drown in it.
Have I sold you yet? Probably not, since I am still wrestling with how I enjoyed it so much. I think that can be summed up in two words: Guy Pearce. Here he plays one of the most unlikable, immoral, evil characters I’ve seen depicted on screen in…well…ever. It’s like he stumbled out of a Lars Von Trier film. We don’t get any real backstory as to why he is the way he is. He’s really just this unstoppable machine of false righteousness and bloody revenge. Just when you think someone might get the upper hand on him, it fails miserably. And Pearce sinks his teeth into this lunacy with a wide-eyed relish, donning a thick Dutch accent and moving with the deliberate pace of a dancer embarked in a demonic tango. And the last moments we see of the character in the film are eerie, bewildering, and hearken back to when Jon Voight was vomited up in Anaconda just to have his partially digested self wink at Jennifer Lopez.
You know – you’re probably better off not seeing Brimstone because then you won’t have to wrestle with it at all. But it is rare to find a Western that is so confident in its severity. Hell, it’s near impossible to find a remotely original Western at all these days, and Brimstone definitely is that. So, if you’re having a bad day – Brimstone might make it worse. If you’re having a good day – it might cut you down to size. Is that a recommendation? Hell, I guess so. In another few days, I might think it’s the worst film of the year. Or I might be anxious to see it again. I really don’t know. What I do know is this: Guy Pearce is a bad, bad, bad, bad man.