Heavy going gothic Western
As London gears up for the official start of its 61st annual film festival, a movie from the 2016 line-up finally gets a release in British cinemas this week. Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone – no plain and simple Brimstone for this director! – introduces itself with a flourish and leaves you feeling decidedly uncomfortable.
Koolhoven’s first film in the English language is a western in four acts, one that starts at the end, works backwards and comes full circle. At the centre is Liz (Dakota Fanning) who lives with husband Eli (William Houston), his son and their daughter in a remote house. Liz cannot speak, although she can hear perfectly well, and communicates using sign language. As the local midwife who delivers the town’s babies, she is also a deeply trusted member of the community. But when the Reverend (Guy Pearce) arrives, she senses danger for both herself and her family as he starts to turn everybody against her.
The question, of course, is why and we’re made to wait for the story to unfold. In the meantime, the first quarter of the film is easily the most interesting and intriguing, simply because we don’t know anybody’s back story, especially Liz’s – and that’s the one we really want to understand. Parts two and three bring that gradual revelation, and more, such as the Reverend’s track record and the story of Liz’s own, long-suffering mother. It makes for a complex jigsaw and one where the pieces don’t always fit quite as well as they should. It’s also where the film’s taste for the bloody and the gothic comes to the fore, with much of the gore belonging to the women.
As the story goes further and further back, the entire film becomes heavier, more sombre and generally harder going. The overpowering score doesn’t help. The hardest aspect to swallow is the treatment of women, especially at the hands of the Reverend. Full of blood and thunder in the pulpit, his treatment of Liz and his own wife is pure misogyny. He fits his wife with a cruel metal bridle when she challenges his authority and whips both her and his child. Pearce may not have Love or Hate tattooed on his fingers like Robert Mitchum in The Night Of The Hunter, but he’s a close relative of that legendary preacher. More unsettling is that it’s never clear whether his behaviour towards women is being condemned or relished in the most sadistic of ways.
It’s frustratingly difficult to tell if Koolhoven set out to make a feminist, revisionist western. If he did, he’s concealed it well, disguising it with brutality and blood and wrapping it up in an epic two hours. It’s more like an endurance test and one with little in the way of reward at the end.
Brimstone is released in cinemas on Friday, 29 September.