Brimstone (2016)

  • Time: 148 min
  • Genre: Mystery | Thriller | Western
  • Director: Martin Koolhoven
  • Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Kit Harington


A triumphant epic of survival and a tale of powerful womanhood and resistance against the unforgiving cruelty of a hell on earth. Our heroine is Liz (Dakota Fanning), carved from the beautiful wilderness, full of heart and grit, hunted by a vengeful Preacher (Guy Pearce) – a diabolical zealot and her twisted nemesis. But Liz is a genuine survivor; she’s no victim – a woman of fearsome strength who responds with astonishing bravery to claim the better life she and her daughter deserve. Fear not. Retribution is coming.

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  • Brimstone, the first English-language film from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven, is a two-and-a-half-hour period drama that often plays as if Pier Paolo Pasolini had decided to do a Western with religious overtones. As severely austere as its colour palette is, this is a film that does not skimp on lurid sex and violence.

    Divided into four chapters titled Revelation, Exodus, Genesis, and Retribution – the first three of which are told in reverse chronological order – the film tracks Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young mute midwife who suffers a series of Job-like tragedies at the hands of her Dutch-immigrant father, The Reverend (Guy Pearce), who is hellbent on fulfilling what he believes is God’s will for her to become his wife. His intention isn’t initially revealed when his appearance disrupts her relatively calm life at the start of the film, though her terrified reaction at his sudden presence signals something sinister is about to unfold.

    Indeed, within minutes of the preacher laying hands on a pregnant member of his new congregation, labour pains begin to wrack the woman and Liz, the town’s midwife, is soon blamed when she fails to deliver the baby. “I have to punish you,” the Reverend tells her matter-of-factly as he ingratiates himself with her much older husband, young stepson, and angelic daughter, all of whom are immediately endangered by their association with her. To say that he unleashes hell upon her is an understatement – her husband is not only viciously stabbed by the Reverend, but is also strangled with his own entrails – but, as the following chapters make all too clear, this is but the latest brutality that he has exacted upon her.

    The middle chapters detail Liz’s formative years during which she trades her abusive home life – witnessing the Reverend force his overly submissive wife (Carice Van Houten) to wear a debasing face collar, amongst other humiliations – for a somewhat less hellacious stint at a brothel; that is, if one counts being made to watch a customer savagely beat one of the prostitutes, a hanging, and someone’s tongue being cut off as comparatively less heinous. For all of Koolhoven’s intentions of creating a somewhat feminist survivalist Western – Liz is branded a warrior a handful of times – there’s something too gleeful in the way Koolhoven dwells on the various sadomasochistic abuses within the Sodom and Gomorrah-like world he has crafted.

    Koolhoven obviously knows the story he wants to tell and the manner of the telling, but his confident handling isn’t enough to overlook how relentlessly grim and punishing an affair Brimstone is to watch. There are undeniably compelling moments throughout, but they are equaled by extended moments of ponderous and self-indulgent allegory and symbolism. Pearce and Fanning are excellent throughout.

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