Brimstone is a less heralded but grisly and memorable addition to the Western frontier movie archive. Made by the Dutch director, Martin Koolhoven, in what appears to be a Dutch production, this is a story set on a remote frontier outpost, in the nineteenth century, where Dutch pioneer settlers try to make do with the little they have to build on. The story has a lot of overt symbolism on religious dogma and fittingly it is divided into four sections titled ‘Revelation’, ‘Exodus’, ‘Genesis’ and ‘Retribution’. While the first appears to be the present timeline of the story, the others delve into the past of the main protagonist and antagonist.
The protagonist here is a mute young woman Liz Brundy, played by Dakota Fanning, wife of a divorced and agreeable man and stepmother to his son and daughter. She also doubles up as the local midwife. One day a new preacher, foretelling hellfire and brimstone, walks into their church and assumes command. While the rest of the townspeople are bewitched by this preacher (Guy Pearce), Liz has her suspicions and possibly a history with this man. When a potential and sudden childbirth situation goes awry inside the church, it provides ammunition for the locals to brand her evil and for the preacher to assert his will over the townspeople over her. But what is the story behind their apparent animosity towards each other?
As we go back in time, what comes to light is a brutal backstory detailing Liz’s life and flight from this manic preacher from a young age. Growing up with her meek mother and creepy father (the preacher himself) life is a constant struggle against both the elements and the darkness of her father’s soul. This becomes even worse when she comes of age and her father’s desires towards her turn incestual. His gruesome wordplay and convenient interpretation of biblical knowledge to his twisted suitability means that he wields an iron will over the townspeople as well. After a tragic turn of events, she makes her way into the deserts and eventually finds herself deposited in a brothel by wandering Chinese immigrants. Suffice to say, life here is hardly a cakewalk either, but at least she does manage to get away from the maniacal father after her and even make some friends. But the ‘relief’ is short-lived of course. For he has an uncanny knack of finding her even if she goes to the ends of the earth. A (very) twisted turn of events later, she finds herself on the way to an unknown suitor and his family in another remote town. But will she ever be free of the shackles which seem to bind her eternally to this monster of a figure in her life? The story comes to a brutal conclusion amidst a lot of blood and gore that you should not venture into if you are queasy of stomach.
The setting is, as befits the premise and the time it is set in, beautifully bleak and awe-inspiring. The remoteness and natural beauty of the place is offset by the hardship and spare joys that is on offer for the inhabitants making their way in a pioneering time for settlers to the new world. The film also does a good job of conveying both the succor and opportunism that religion provides, especially for snake-oil preachers who want to turn their depravities into their advantages. The Bible and its passages are used here as a iron whip to control the herd and obfuscate enemies. And it is an especially unfortunate time for a young woman cast adrift in this unforgiving world.
The acting is uniformly brilliant. Dakota Fanning is someone I always associate with the ultra-cute kid of movies like ‘Man on Fire’ and ‘I am Sam’ and here she finally gets a mature role which uses her vulnerably strong and pretty features to great effect. The same goes for her younger version played by Emilia Jones. Carice van Houten as her embittered and put down upon mother is aptly cast and Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame shows up in a relatively short and thankless role in one of the segments. But it is Guy Pearce as the preacher/reverend who towers over the movie in a display of vicious evil that claws to the heart of darkness. He has to be one of the most foreboding and memorable villains I’ve seen in recent film history and the chills that accompany his appearance on screen in each of the story segments is a homage to the brutal effectiveness of his performance.
If you can get past the violence (and there is some explicit violence involving both humans and animals), this is a grittily effective and must watch addition to the Western genre and I would suggest all movie lovers to give this one a look.