The first English speaking film from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime, 2008) is a two and a half hour long western epic about a young woman who has suffered in her life probably more than all the women in Lars Von Trier’s films combined.
Starring Dakota Fanning (Liz) and Guy Pierce (The Reverend), the story begins when the Reverend arrives at Liz’s town. The young mute woman who works as the town’s midwife instantly recognizes the man and the terror he brings from her past for both herself and her family. As the chapters of the film unfold the story of Liz’s melancholic past is told in gruesome detail, and the nature of her dark and twisted relationship with the Reverend is further explained. The performances by the two main actors are highly impressive, yet fail to divert the viewer’s attention from the conspicuously flawed script, and it most certainly is flawed.
Recounting the relationship between Liz and the Reverend would require spoiling the entire film. However, it is safe to say that it includes some very dark themes and taboos, and although it is almost always refreshing to see filmmakers venturing into the darker areas of humanity often left untold on the silver screen, in Brimstone these efforts fail miserably. It appears as if the filmmaker bit more than he could chew with this one, after all you cannot include child abuse, pedophilia, domestic abuse, human violence, sex worker’s rights and religious fanaticism in one film, even if it’s a 2 and a half hour one. The main problem lies within the spreading of these themes throughout the film, as they are all clustered together in the second act dividing the film into two distinctly separate halves, and ultimately disrupting the pace of the entire film.
Another rather disappointing quality of Brimstone is its unceasing determination to fall into clichés and stereotypes. I understand it is mostly a genre piece and avoiding formulaic ideas about the American old west is almost inevitable, still the film’s use of recurrent and corny ideas regarding the representation of evil characters and religious fanatics on screen is rather frustrating. Scenes as lightning striking as the bad guy is introduced, or a man flying out the window by a single rifle shot tend to devaluate the artistry of the entire film. Besides, the story itself progresses into an over the top purposefully depressive tragedy that reaches its peak of irrationality by the ending scene, at which point the film has already lost its credibility.
Brimstone includes some beautiful shots, yet its cinematography is not particularly remarkable. The performances are notable, yet they cannot hold the film alone. The characters diverse, yet far-fetched and over blown. Brimstone may be an acceptable film, passably entertaining, but it’s definitely not the masterpiece it is promoted to be.