Written by: Dale Raulerson
Directed by: Martin Koolhoven
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Carice Van Houten
Much like the retro resurgence we’ve been experiencing over the last few years, there seems to be an ongoing effort to revive the Western genre, particularly by coupling it with Horror (Bone Tomahawk) or at least with Horror directors (Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence). It’s a trend that I’ve found enjoyable so far, leading to my excitement for the release of Brimstone despite having absolutely no clue what it was really about from the trailer. The presence of the incredibly talented Guy Pearce also got me hooked, and as it turns out, his stock in the film is perhaps the primary reason that it got made. Koolhoven had been struggling to build up the financing over the last 5 years, opting to make the film overseas vs. in Hollywood out of a desire to retain creative control of the final cut. Pearce’s willingness to fly to Europe despite the possibility of the film falling short in funds bolstered the backers’ faith in the project, allowing it to go forward. Thank goodness that it did.
Brimstone is the story of a mute midwife (Fanning) who is stricken with terror upon the arrival of a mysterious and ominous minister (Pearce). Their lives suddenly erupt into violence and drama as the film draws back to reveal their connected history in reverse order before its horrific conclusion. The movie is cut up into four chapters, the first three playing out from the present into the deep past, with the final chapter being the present conclusion. The format is interesting, leaving you on the edge of your seat and wondering just how in the world these two people have come to be in such violent opposition. It feeds you the finer details little by little, impressively keeping you guessing while never leaving you lost of confused. It’s a hard balance to strike, but Koolhoven nails it down.
Given the wide spanning time period and various locations seen in the film, the cast as a whole is rather large but there are key performances to look at, namely Pearce and Fanning who are both excellent. Pearce really steals the show though, crafting a personality that is larger than life and practically mythic in his ability to control and torment. He is damaged and vicious but never seems out of control, even when circumstances veer wildly into the realm of the unexpected. His is a masterful performance that isn’t one to miss, and undoubtedly will be one of the best of the year. The supporting cast are all effective and enjoyable, with some appearances from Game of Thrones veterans Kit Harrington and Carice Van Houten. Both have smaller roles that are still key to the plot’s development. I’ve seen some people poke fun at Harrington’s southern accent, but I never found it bothersome. He’s got a small amount of lines and I was happy with his performance.
Visually the movie looks good, though unimpressive in some instances. There are a few very beautiful scenic shots and the costuming is great, but many of the scenes are pretty plain looking. I wouldn’t describe any of it as bad, but simply not noteworthy. The other special effects look nice though, with the gore being pretty minimal but raw and unembellished when it appears. The violence is stark and pairs well with the plot, which is gut wrenching and unrelenting. There are some violent scenes against children, and the film does not hold back in that regard, but treats the sequences with the same harsh reality as it would any other.
There are a few minor setbacks and weaknesses that kept this from being quite the powerhouse that I’d hoped it would be. There are some narration bookends that feel out of place and ineffectively flowery, and the score, while not bad, isn’t terribly memorable and is too obvious when it swells around scenes that are clearly intended to be emotional. These aspects blur the line between what feels like more of an indie/artistic movie and a bigger budget thriller/drama, making it slightly awkward. For some, this plot is going to be tough to stomach as well, for rampant sexual abuse and child abuse. However, it is for this same reason that the plot does have a substantial amount of power, particularly in the hands of a talented cast and a director with a vision and message, not just trying to shock people for the sake of it. Perhaps not as thought provoking as intended, there is still inspiration to be found from this tale for those who can stomach it.