Director: Martin Koolhoven
Cast: Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning, Carice van Houten, Kit Harington
Runtime: 2 hrs 29 mins
Rating: R21 (Sexual Scenes and Violence)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 20 April 2017
Synopsis: A triumphant epic of survival and a tale of powerful womanhood and resistance against the unforgiving cruelty of a hell on earth. Our heroine is Liz (Dakota Fanning), carved from the beautiful wilderness, full of heart and grit, hunted by a vengeful Preacher (Guy Pearce) - a diabolical zealot and her twisted nemesis. But Liz is a genuine survivor; she’s no victim - a woman of fearsome strength who responds with astonishing bravery to claim the better life she and her daughter deserved."
Martin Koolhoven’s ‘Brimstone’ begins in a small village where a mute young woman named Liz (Dakota Fanning) and her daughter Sam (Ivy George) live on a ranch with her much older husband Eli (William Houston) and his teenage son Matthew (Jack Hollington). Despite the occasional tension between mother and stepson, they live in relative idyll. That peace is however shattered with the arrival of a new reverend (Guy Pearce), who in his first sermon not only quotes from the book of Matthew to warn them of false prophets who are dressed in sheep’s clothing but also tells the congregation how he is personally acquainted with the pain of hell. From the moment she hears the reverend’s voice, Liz is seized with terror, though we know yet not for what reason. But we come to realise that Liz has every reason to be scared, as the reverend seems bent on punishing her for an unfortunate emergency delivery on the church’s grounds right after his sermon, where she was forced to make a split-second choice between the life of the mother and that of her baby whose head was too big.
Over the course of the next half-hour, we watch as the reverend slowly tightens his noose around Liz – but it is not until we see Eli pleading with Liz to end his life after choking on a noose made out of his own intestines that we recognise the reverend for what he truly is, i.e. pure evil. Koolhoven titles the proceedings till then ‘Revelation’, but really the revelation lies in the subsequent two chapters ‘Exodus’ and ‘Genesis’. Moving back in time through Liz’s life, he traces her ordeals as a 13-year-old runaway working as a teenage prostitute at a mining-town brothel named ‘Frank’s Inferno’ and her childhood with the reverend and his meek and deferential wife (Carice van Houten). Oh yes, the reverend is no less than her father, who uses the Bible to justify his desire to marry Liz and have sexual relations with her. He is the very embodiment of the ‘ravenous wolf’ whom he had warned of in the first chapter, and a most loathsome one at that in the way he hijacks religion to explain away his lustful, sinful desires.
There is no denying that ‘Koolhoven’s Brimstone’, as it appears in the opening credits, is a riveting watch. Shuffling the order of events proves an inspired artistic choice, forcing us to re-assess at every juncture the characters’ relationships with one another. Yet how much you’ll enjoy this neo-Western is another question altogether, and indeed there is good reason why people’s opinions on that are likely to be polarised. By the end of ‘Genesis’, you’d have sat through two scenes in which women get their tongues cut out (one of them being Liz), another two in which women get their backs horse-whipped by the reverend (again, one of them being Liz albeit in her younger days) and another two where decent women are hung to their deaths. In between, there is slaughter, evisceration and mutilation, and let’s just say the nihilistic violence is the reason why it has been rated R21 in our land. Worse, it doesn’t stop there – by the end of the fourth and final chapter ‘Retribution’, you’ll also have seen a five-year-old subjected to a hideous whipping on her bare back.
Had the opening voiceover (which eventually bookends Liz’s story) not primed us for a proto-feminist empowerment story, we probably would not have so appalled at the hurt and humiliation that Koolhoven subjects his female characters to. But given how what we realise is a grown-up Sam speaking about her tough-as-nails mother, it is somewhat disconcerting and even downright perplexing just what Koolhoven intended for his film to say. Is this a film that aims to expose the subjugation of women? Is this an allegory about the false prophets in our midst who hide behind the guise of religion? Or is this really a thinly disguised exploitation piece? Whatever the case, Koolhoven’s message about God and male dominance, misogyny and female resilience comes off muddled, and hardly as compelling as the undeniably brilliant ‘Revelation’ suggests the rest of the film may be.
That the movie still remains an engaging watch is credit to the excellent acting of Pearce and Fanning. One of the most underrated actors of our generation, Pearce oozes mystery and menace in equal measure, carefully calibrating his Calvinist act so it never tips into camp. Fanning has matured finely as a kid in ‘War of the Worlds’ and ‘Charlotte’s Web’ into the young character actress we see here, conveying her character’s fear, dread, desperation, grit and fighting spirit in a mostly wordless performance that is surely one of her best. Koolhoven has also assembled an impressive list of Dutch talent behind the camera – cinematographer Rogier Stoffers contributes the beautiful landscapes and stark, often striking, visuals; while his regular production designer Floris Vos makes good use of the locations in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Spain to depict a slice of the Old West.
Flawed though it may be therefore, it is undeniable that Koolhoven’s ‘Brimstone’ reflects a strong directorial vision – it could do with clearer thematic focus, but it is nonetheless a well-structured drama that unspools with confidence and poise. Like we warned, it is bleak, brutal and bloody as its title suggests, so get ready to steel your nerves and your guts if you’re prepared to sit through two-and-a-half hours of often relentless gloom. Truth be told, Koolhoven could have made any number of English-language films after his well-received 2008 WWII drama ‘Winter in Wartime’, but the fact that he chose to avoid the typical Hollywood picture and go about one of the most expensive Dutch movies ever made is testament to his ambition, conviction and passion, all of which are reasons enough to give this revisionist Western a shot.
(Relentlessly bleak, often bloody and at times brutal, this revisionist Western is nonetheless a creative tour de force by writer-director Martin Koolhoven, complemented in no small measure by Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning's riveting performances)
Review by Gabriel Chong