You have to admire the nerve of Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. The title card for his first English language effort reads ‘Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone‘, and the film itself is full of confidence and grand gestures: an ornery bloody-minded western with grit in its gut and a wet splash of horror. Liz (Dakota Fanning) lives with her husband Eli (William Huston), his son from a previous marriage and their daughter in a homestead in the semi-wilderness. Liz is mute – though not deaf – and communicates via sign language. She is also a midwife, trusted by the local community to deliver their babies.
When a new reverend (Guy Pearce) arrives, she immediately feels that herself and her family are in danger as he begins – through possibly supernatural means – to turn everyone against her and explicitly threatens her daughter. This premise in itself could have made a tense tale, but things, as they say, escalate quickly. Told in chapters, its audience is then treated to what seems like an unrelated incident as a young girl called Joanna (played by Emilia Jones) walks out of the desert and into a mining town and a life of exploitation and violence. Each chapter adds another piece to a jigsaw in which at least some of the pieces seem to be missing. There are buckets of gore and a lot of it belong to the women. As the film takes us backwards in time, we learn the provenance of scars, the mystery of Liz’s identity and the motives for the relentless pursuit of the reverend.
With Pearce’s Dutch preacher, lanky form and Amish beard, he resembles a cross between a demonic Abraham Lincoln and Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He’s an old school preacher, enjoying freedom from religious persecution and using it to express fully his own brand of blood and thunder catechism. His treatment of Liz is of a piece with the widespread misogyny of the West. He fits his wife with metal bridle when she challenges him and distributes whippings to his wife and child. At times, the depiction of sadism comes close to being sadistic and it is not always clear that the film knows what it wants to be. It is not as full on with its horror as the genius of Bone Tomahawk is for instance. But it is too in love with its own schlock to be taken overly-seriously as a revisionist feminist western.
The supernatural lurks as the ghost of a possibility without ever being fully accepted into the narrative, which means improbability also nags. There are too many questions by the film’s conclusion unanswered, and which the film perhaps can’t answer. The humour is dry and, well, Dutch and the religious imagery comes heavy and constant. Overhead shots give the impression of a lurking stalking deity rather than a benevolent God. Koolhoven carves his West in solid wood and, though the geography is sketchy, it is a convincing muddy portrayal with more than a little Deadwood thereabouts. Ultimately, however, Brimstone is obstinately itself. Dark, lurid, sadistic and powerful, it is at the least a fascinating and bold debut, and promises better to come.