“Brimstone” is a highly controversial film produced by the Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. The film’s non-linear plot follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young girl and then woman, who is plagued by the harassment and persecution of one – the Reverend (Guy Pearce). Unflinching in the way it portrays highly controversial topics and beautiful in its execution, this film will be deemed “shocking” and “distasteful” by some, while others will only see in the film extreme courage, originality and intelligence. Either way, this atmospheric film will have a big impact on the viewer, and the sensations it will provoke will not fade away any time soon. In that vein, although “Brimstone” was misunderstood and fiercely criticised in the US, the film has been the centre of praise in Europe, and rightly so.
“Brimstone” is divided into four chapters: “Revelation”, “Exodus”, “Genesis” and “Retribution”. The first three chapters are in reverse chronological order, while the final chapter tells the concluding story. In that way, we first see Liz as a mute woman who works as a midwife and lives with her husband, stepson and young daughter in a village. This first part may initially remind of “The Piano” (1993) (as there, there is also this young unfortunate mute woman with a young daughter fighting for her rights/life in a hostile setting), but viewers will be very surprised to discover that this film is thousands miles away from a Southern gothic romance they may be expecting. The second part reveals Liz’s earlier beginnings as she works in a brothel as a prostitute, and becomes a close friend to another woman working in the establishment. Here, it is a somewhat cross between “Gangs of New York” (2002) and maybe “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), or maybe a child film of Quentin Tarantino and Jane Campion, but, even here, nothing as yet hints at the sheer gruesomeness and inventiveness of the picture. Then, the third chapter details Liz’s early adolescence, her family life with her mother and father on the farm, and the situation of her sheltering two wounded soldiers at some point; and, finally, the fourth chapter is about Liz’s “present” life as she continues to be persecuted by the Reverend. Here, in the final chapters, the audience finally discovers the true “meaning” of the film, but whatever heart-break or distress they have experienced in the progress, they would not recover from it easily. The usual tag describing this film simply says “a triumphant tale of powerful womanhood and resistance against a violent past that refuses to fade”, and, with all due respect, this is an extremely subdued way to describe the horrendous, but also powerful and unforgettable, film.
The countries of northern Europe have always been noted for their unflinching, provocative cinematography, often producing filmmakers who are unafraid to venture into the unknown, and explore the societal, religious and moral taboos. Danish Lars Von Trier is the most well-known director working in that genre, but Dutch Paul Verhoeven, with his films “Elle” (2016) and “Basic Instinct” (1992), is also not too far behind. In that way, Martin Koolhoven is also among those filmmakers, but, in all honesty, he takes the crown in the recent “extreme” film-making line. In perspective, even Lars Von Trier’s most controversial films, including “Antichrist” (2009) and “Nymphomaniac” (2013), seem a child’s play compared to Koolhoven’s recent “Brimstone”. If I were to revise my list of “20 most disturbing and hard-to-watch films”, “Brimstone” will be there nearer the top of it, or somewhere between such movies as “Funny Games U.S.” (2007) and “I Spit on Your Grave” (2010). Koolhovel’s “Brimstone” is hard to watch and to stomach, containing a myriad of shockingly outrageous scenes. On top of that, from its very first scenes, the film creates this atmosphere of oppression, depression and total heart-wretchedness which defies anyone’s previous conceptions and beliefs.
Do the things outlined above mean that this film is unwatchable? To the contrary. Despite its outrageous material, the film’s plot is intriguing, thought-provoking and fascinating, and the style of delivery is enviable: controlled with beautiful shots. “Brimstone” is unpredictable throughout, and has a number of Hitchcockian suspense moments, making it engrossing to watch. The merit for this goes to the director who is also the script-writer here, and, in fact, Koolhoven had spent at least five years developing his story. Even though Koolhoven admits that many films inspired him to make “Brimstone”, such as Tarantino’s western-style violence in “Django Unchained” (2012) and the non-linear narrative in Nolan’s “Memento” (2000), there is a feeling that “Brimstone” still stands on its own two feet with its original and shocking twists and turns. Besides, there are more layers to this film than initially meets the eye, and some details prove significant. For example, language is being used in the film to make a barrier between Liz and her entourage, and the Reverend. Liz communicates in sign language as she is mute – making a powerful contrast to the Reverend’s vocal orations in a church. Also, the Reverend in the film does not want to heart Dutch being spoken at home. In that sense, the Dutch language spoken by young Joanna (Liz) in the film is the way to separate her from her abusive father (again, as the sign language, it is a form of “secret” language). Interesting here is also the fact that Liz sacrifices her tongue to escape her past, another language-related detail in the film.
The acting in the film is also great, and the characters are memorable and well-written. Dakota Fanning as older Liz is magnificent. Fanning, whose early films included “War of the Worlds” (2005) and “The Runaways” (2010), here gives a brave, outstanding performance. As she plays a mute half of the film, her performance is non-vocal, but she still manages to express a lot with her eyes and facial expressions. This is clearly seen in the first part of the film, where she hears the voice of the Reverend in the church, and the audience is bewildered to see the sheer terror in her eyes as his voice fills the church. In fact, “innocence” is the very word to describe Fanning’s appearance, and she really does become like a lamb hunted by a wolf (the Reverend) in the film, and the antagonistic chemistry/tension between Pearce and Fanning is powerful. It is also refreshing to see Fanning in this film, because, so far, she is not an actress who is automatically associated with period dramas, an association which could have hurt this film. Previously, Mia Wasikowska was cast as Liz, but, thankfully, she dropped out. After Wasikowska’s “Jane Eyre” (2011), “Albert Nobbs” (2011) and “Madame Bovary” (2014), her casting in this film would have sent the wrong message to the audience, because “Brimstone” is essentially a western-style thriller with horror elements. Guy Pearce (“Memento”) embodies the Reverend with zeal and passion, giving an excellent performance, and making his character a truly unforgettable maniac: demonic, psychopathic, sadistic and merciless. Carice van Houten as Anna, Emilia Jones as young Joanna and Kit Harington as Samuel are also all great in their respective roles.
The obvious criticism of this film is that it gets too brutal for anyone’s taste, especially near the end. Just when the audience may think that the director will have mercy both on them and on the main heroine, Death knocks on the door yet again or something else, equally shocking, happens. The film is also too long, as though the director does not know that it is possible to cut his film after he filmed it, and “Brimstone” does have this occasional tendency to slide into pretentiousness with overblown moments, and totally unrealistic and “self-indulgent” scenes. The weakest link in the film is also its second chapter, where Koolhoven relies on too many western clichés to make it work, such as showing the usual westerns’ bad-mouthed spinsters and long-drawn, painful deaths.
Is “Brimstone” a good film? Undoubtedly, it is, even great. The film is masterfully executed: the suspenseful and thrilling tale is beautifully shot with some great acting. Will I recommend watching it to everyone? Surprisingly, no. I would only recommend watching it if you are really curious about the plot, and not easily put off by graphic, disturbing, horrifying and heart-wrenching material. 8/10
Arguably, behind the façade, “Brimstone” is a deep film, rich in symbolism and meaning. The film uses the legal defence of “necessity”, also a moral-grounds defence mentioned in the Bible, in a number of occasions in the film, making the viewing thought-provoking. For example, in the first part, Liz is unfairly accused of murder by a grieving father when she chooses to preserve a mother’s life instead of a child’s one in a difficult birth operation. Here, clearly, Liz is not at fault for the death of a newborn, because she has the moral/legal defence of necessity: she had to choose a life to save so as to avoid both the mother and child’s deaths. Also, nearer the end, one wounded soldier explains to Liz that he needed to kill another soldier because otherwise that soldier would have killed him at some point.
One very noticeable problem with this film’s plot is that Liz allows too many people to needlessly suffer and die for her. It is true that, in the film, Liz is portrayed as a pure “victim”, innocent of any crime, and trying to protect herself. However, it is also clear that by her numerous actions Liz endangers too many people’s lives, and, as a direct result of her other actions, some people end up dead. These seemingly thoughtless actions could have been avoided on her part to save lives, for example, she inadvertently prompts her mother to kill herself when she implies to her that she personally would not stand such a demonic behaviour from her father; later in the film, another brothel worker gets hanged trying to protect Liz from the abuse, which could have been avoided had Liz acted differently; and, most significantly, in the final part of the film, Liz did lead the Reverend all the way to the cabin of her other male relative, knowing that the Reverend will follow and is likely to murder (not to mention that both her husband and her stepson die horrible deaths as they are close to her). Taking this into account, Liz, as a character, may appear less sympathetic in the film.