Brimstone is an almost unbearably violent take on the Western with a strong female character at its centre.
God of Hellfireby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
More tense than a horror and almost too hard to watch at times, Brimstone is a Western of unremittingly violent misogyny. Dakota Fanning excels as Liz, a young woman who has no tongue and communicates in sign language. Living in a remote settlement, she is married to a kind widower (William Houston), has a stepson and young daughter and acts as the local midwife. When a new reverend (Guy Pearce) takes over at the church in town, it’s clear she is terrified of him, and his obsessive pursuit of her triggers tragedy in her family’s life.
The story is told in four sections – Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution – and the timescale is a backward loop as in the middle sections we delve further back into the history between Liz and the reverend, and how she came to lose her tongue, intriguingly teasing out the plot twists until the final bloody denouement. Women are with no exception the victims of sadomasochistic men in a rough frontier society. They suffer sexual violence in Frank’s Inferno, the aptly named brothel of the small mining town, in the confines of the Dutch Calvinist community, and even within the family home there is danger for both a submissive wife (Carice van Houten) and a rebellious pubescent young girl (Emilia Jones). Kit Harington (Game of Thrones), on the run, has a role of surprising restraint in that environment.
It’s the first film in English for Dutch director Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime, who conceived it and wrote the screenplay. Dakota Fanning (Effie Grey, Night Moves) whether mute or speaking is resourceful, driven to fight back and Oscar-worthy. As the scarred preacher who perverts the meaning of religion to his own ends, Guy Pearce (Iron Man 3) is almost superhumanly menacing. The film is beautifully shot, its wide landscapes and monochrome snow scenes are unforgettable. Seeping blood is a recurrent image, and its more horrific scenes are a hard watch.
Brimstone screens on 13, 14 October 2016 in the Official Competition at the BFI London Film Festival.