Martin Koolhoven’s four-part Western/thriller saga, Brimstone, has set itself up to be the next big thing. The highly anticipated genre-bending film features a star-studded cast and self-advertises as an epic hero tale of a young woman in colonial America running from a twisted villain from her dark past. It’s bloody, shocking, and no holds barred – everything we would want from a high-budget genre fusion like this. While Brimstone certainly is a great personal achievement for Koolhoven, its lack of responsibility towards its delicate subject matter and its confusing, at times superfluous, plot structure make this quasi-feminist tale its own worst enemy.
Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a mute midwife living with her husband, daughter and stepson in a small, religious frontier colony in the United States. She alone is horror-stricken when a new Reverend (Guy Pearce) takes the pulpit one Sunday morning and warns the congregation using not-so-subtle subtext to “beware of false prophets”. Bizarre occurrences begin to befall Liz’s home and livestock until the climactic moment where she finds her husband strangled with his own entrails and her house set ablaze. She and her two children flee whilst the Reverend stands, watching the flames roar. Assuming a chase scene ensues, one is surprised to be met with a seemingly different young girl traversing and subsequently collapsing in the desert. She turns out to be 13-year-old Liz, aka Joanna, and after being rescued is promptly sold into sex slavery at the local brothel. After many years, the Reverend somehow finds her there and it becomes clear we are watching a series of flashbacks. Arguably the most disturbing portion of the film comes in the next chapter when we see Joanna’s childhood and learn that the Reverend is her father and that he has incestuous feelings for her, which he ultimately acts upon.
The finale is somewhat predictable, save for the extra cringe-worthy moment when the Reverend suggests raping his own approximately four-year-old granddaughter, but rewarding when we finally get to see Liz/Joanna vanquish her abuser. The denouement is then disappointing for its implication that she could never escape her past and its glorification of suicide in suggesting that the only way to live with dignity is to die. We’re meant to see this as a feminist tale of a woman breaking the cycle of abuse, but one has to question what the message is that we’re really left with in the end. For a film that is so cinematically pleasing (hats off to cinematographer Rogier Stoffers) with stunning visuals and sweeping landscape shots, Brimstone seems to be a bit of baseless grandeur. It’s the structure and style of an epic with a flippant heart.
Although violence and provocative content makes for good cinema, there is a certain level of care that has to accompany tender topics and it’s up to the director to make sure of that. For nearly two and half hours we watch a deranged, perverted reverend go on a murderous, incestuous, paedophilic rampage, torturing and killing egregiously. We watch Liz, her mother, her daughter, her lovers, her husband and her stepson suffer by his hand. Koolhoven goes too far and never quite circles back to pick up the pieces, leaving the audience more disturbed than empowered and more overwhelmed than satisfied.
Brimstone is released nationwide on 29th September 2017.
Watch the trailer for Brimstone here: