Brimstone, the English-language debut of writer/director Martin Koolhoven, is another in the recent raft of European Westerns (The Salvation (2014), The Revenant (2015) and Slow West (2015)) i.e. tales of frontier life from the point of view of recent immigrants as told by non-Americans. More concerned with accurately capturing the immigrant experience than promoting the self-aggrandising mythos of America, these films are breathing welcome life back into a genre that many thought was long dead.
The scarcity of other films of its ilk clearly speaks of an ongoing gender imbalance
Tying into the long tradition (though criminally under-used) of female led Westerns dating back to the 1920’s, standout examples being Joan Crawford's non-nonsense Vienna in Johnny Guitar (1954) and MIchelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff (2010), Brimstone should definitely be added to this body of works. However, it is worth noting, there is a distinct scarcity of other films of its ilk, clearly speaking to an ongoing gender imbalance in this particular genre.
Told over four chapters; Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution - this brutally violent, epically long and slightly garish Western is steeped in Old Testament Christianity and the pervasive patriarchal oppression that entailed. Multiple references are made to the dominion of the husband over the wife’s body, the ownership of women’s bodies in a brothel and both the symbolic and literal silencing of women through chastisement, scold’s bridles and mutilation.
The 'first menses' - a rite of passage that marked the clear delineation of the time between child and woman - is brought to our attention a number of times. It is an idea (which we know to be false today) that says your body is instantly ready for childbearing after your first menstruation despite the increased risks of anaemia, high blood pressure and preterm labour.
Unsurprisingly, given the film’s title, fire is a recurring motif with the obvious connotations of hellfire and brimstone clearly there, though it’s use in an arable setting occasionally brings to mind controlled burning, where controlled fires are used to both reduce excess fuel build-up and encourage the germination of certain trees.
A journey to find out a chilling connection
Liz (Dakota Fanning), who is mute, is the local midwife in her pioneer community of Dutch settlers, aided by her daughter who communicates with the townsfolk on her behalf. Trusted and admired for her skills, until a new hellfire preacher, the Reverend (Guy Pearce), arrives at the local pulpit and turns the people against her. Forced to go on the run with her children, we are led on a journey to find out the chilling connection between these two characters.
Giving a brilliant non-verbal performance, and a more adult one than I’ve seen from her previously, Dakota Fanning enthralls as Liz. She is able to communicate largely through her wide and soulful yet ,sometimes, frantic eyes, so much so that you can feel her steely resolve and defiance shining out. She effectively captures the spirit of this “warrior”, with a fierce screen presence to her credit. Equally impressive, though for very different reasons, is Guy Pearce’s menacing portrayal of The Reverend. A preacher he may be but this is no man of God, this violent, sadistic, imposing flagellate using the church as an excuse to unfetter the violent and unnatural desires he clearly feels.
With some occasions of shocking violence, at one point towards a child, which made for disturbing viewing, it is occasionally reminiscent of exploitation films. However, its effectively evocative and wide ranging score, top-notch cast and sweeping shots of a stark and unforgiving landscape help to lift it above that and, in my mind, make it well worth a watch.