UK Release Date: 19th February 2018
Runtime: 146 minutes
Director: Martin Koolhoven
Writer: Martin Koolhoven
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Emilia Jones, Guy Pearce, Kit Harington, Carice Van Houten, William Houston, Paul Anderson, Carla Juri
Synopsis: A mute woman is pursued by a vengeful preacher as a result of some sort of alleged wrongdoing in her past.
The arrival of a gore-soaked western movie in the modern age cannot help but stir memories of Quentin Tarantino‘s recent frontier bloodbaths Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. It’s in that vein that Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven has delivered Brimstone – his first feature in the English language. An epic tale of revenge and fanatacism, it administers Old Testament justice in a world where “an eye for an eye” is a mantra to live by.
Koolhoven foregrounds the silencing of women in a society of religious fundamentalism through leading lady Dakota Fanning, who finds depth and expressiveness as mute protagonist Liz. In the opening act, Fanning’s face widens with sudden horror at the appearance of Guy Pearce‘s new town reverend. Before she hurriedly tells her husband (William Houston) of her fear through frantic sign language, Fanning is able to convey the almost supernatural threat this man poses to her.
What follows is a story organised through four chapters, each given an illustrative Biblical title. The first three parts unfold in reverse, from Revelation to Genesis, in an ingenious structural move that colours in the link between Fanning and Pearce while maintaining the intrigue and the mystery. Pearce modulates his performance impressively within this structure as the epitome of controlled villainy. He’s stoic and pious on the surface, but exudes a sense of power and menace as an almost omnipotent man on the hunt for vengeance who’s capable of preaching the word of the Lord, moments before strangling someone with their own entrails.
It’s that theme of retribution that powers Brimstone, as it has for the westerns that have come before it, from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven. Koolhoven, though, critiques the idea by muddying the waters, so those seeking revenge are not necessarily on the right side of the audience’s sympathies. His movie is about the perceived wrongs against men, who subsequently seek to systematically silence and subjugate the women they believe to be behind those slights, whether it’s through sexual violence, murder or the insidious evocation of religious shame.
One of the chapters follows the relationship between Pearce and his wife, played by Game of Thrones actress Carice Van Houten, with fellow Westeros alum Kit Harington hiding in a nearby outbuilding. Van Houten’s performance as a wife on the receiving end of her husband’s incandescent rage is full of melancholy and provides many of the movie’s most emotional moments, while firing the starting pistol on our heroine’s long journey to the point at which the film begins.
Brimstone is a thematically rich and beautifully shot western, punctuated with flashes of extreme violence. Koolhoven alternates between allowing reactions to sell the pain of the violence and explicitly portraying the true horror of the acts being perpetrated. One scene of brutality against a child is so viscerally horrifying that it’s genuinely difficult to keep watching. The film is not the grisly endurance test it could’ve been, but that’s because Koolhoven knows exactly when to twist the knife so that it hurts the most.
There’s a load of interviews with the cast and crew, as well as a handful of deleted and extended scenes.
Pop or Poop?
Martin Koolhoven’s bloody revenge story Brimstone is a compelling, multi-stranded tale of the single-minded pursuit of violence. Dakota Fanning’s expressive eyes and face are enough to sell the impact of the narrative punches, with Guy Pearce doing much bigger, broader work as a villain who can genuinely make the skin crawl. It modulates its violence perfectly, as the mark of a filmmaker whose directorial hand is firmly in control.
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Brimstone is available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now, courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.