When I was a child, I used to watch westerns with my Dad, so I have always had an appreciation for the genre. Generally, the more successful modern day westerns fuse themselves with other genres, giving us such unique films as Quentin Tarantino’s mystery film The Hateful Eight (2015) as well as the cowboys meet cannibals film Bone Tomahawk. A more recent example is Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone, a film that mixes elements of westerns, revenge thrillers, and horror movies to create an uncompromising film unlike anything I have ever seen before.
Brimstone is the English language debut film of writer/director Martin Koolhoven (Winter In Wartime 2008). The film stars Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire 2004), Guy Pearce (Ravenous 1999), Ivy George (The Veil 2016), Emilia Jones (High Rise 2015) and Game of Thrones‘ Kit Harington and Carice van Houten. The film follows a mute young woman who is relentless hunted by a ruthless hellfire and brimstone preacher who seeks to punish her for her past crimes.
While being universally praised in Europe, Brimstone‘s reception in the U.S. has been mixed, with many critics calling the film misogynistic. It features such themes as spousal abuse, child abuse, incest, pedophilia, rape, child prostitution and religious fanaticism. If you watch this film, you will see dead babies, slaughtered animals, a man disemboweled, hangings, tongues cut out, several shootings, brains splattering out of heads, stabbings, throat slashings, woman and children being beaten, and a man caught on fire. Some of this happens off screen but it doesn’t make it any less fucked up.
Brimstone is a grueling watch but if you can handle it, you will be rewarded with an excellent story. The story follows Liz, a young mute housewife who desperately tries to protect the ones she loves from an hellish preacher who wants her to suffer for wronging him in the past. The film is composed of 4 chapters that are told out of chronological order, with each giving more details on Liz and her past, as well as how she is connected to the Reverend and why he is after her. The story surprised me at every turn, not once developing the way I expected.
The cast is absolutely phenomenal. Dakota Fanning is brilliant as Liz. Even without dialogue, she is able to perfectly convey her emotions and make the audience feel her fear. Liz is a fighter, not content to be afraid and deal with all the abuse that is inflicted on her. She spends her entire life adapting to horrible situation after horrible situation, becoming stronger in the process. Guy Pearce is terrifying as the unnamed Reverend, a hellfire and brimstone preacher who uses scripture to justify his various evil acts. Just when I thought his actions couldn’t possibly get any more despicable, he managed to prove me wrong again and again. The scenes between him and Fanning are intense, to put in mildly.
There are moments in the film that support the idea that the preacher is supernatural, a theory that strengthens upon re-watching. Kit Harington did an excellent job as Samuel, a nice twist on the stereotypical western outlaw. Carice van Houten is heartbreaking as Anna, a women who endures a lifetime of horrible abuse to protect her child. The film, while being harsh when it comes to its violent subject matter, is shot beautifully, which is a nice juxtaposition to the graphic content.
Brimstone is a violent and uncompromising film that is exhausting to watch, keeping me thinking about it long after the credits had rolled and demanding I re-watch it again the very next day. While not for everyone, those who can deal with the bleakness and brutality of the content will be rewarded with an amazing story that actually manages to end on a hopeful note. Brimstone is my favorite film of the year thus far. If films of this nature are your kind of thing, than I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough.