Epic Western Fable "Brimstone" Is Both Impressive and Pretentious

Epic Western Fable "Brimstone" Is Both Impressive and Pretentious
Dakota Fanning in "Brimstone." (Photo: Momentum Pictures)

The flooded film market sees a lot of features, good and bad, go straight to a VOD release. A few get a token theatrical release to go along with that. Usually these are low- to medium-budget indie features, trying to find an audience off the festival circuit, or pure genre films (horror and action mainly) looking for their fan base without access to the multiplexes.

Brimstone does not fit into these categorizations. A brooding, operatic western epic, neither its widescreen visual grandeur nor its two-and-a-half hour running time is ideal for VOD consumption. There are reasons to see it and reasons to skip it, but if you want to check it out, by all means get to AMC’s South Barrington 24 (downsized from 30 screens thanks to pointless, so-called “luxury” renovations) for its lone area theatrical showings.

At one point Brimstone was surely intended for bigger things. Its scope and thematic seriousness all point to “prestige film” ambitions, though ultimately the movie would have benefited from a little more pulp appeal and a lot less pretention.

An oversized fable about the abuse of women and religious hypocrisy, the movie is the English language debut of Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. His previous feature, 2008’s Winter in Wartime, was a massive hit in the Netherlands and garnered much international industry buzz. Variety reported Koolhoven was courted by Hollywood.

I’m not sure whether planned or dropped projects led to the long delay between films, but Brimstone comes to us through the increasingly common labyrinth of multi-national co-productions. It is an English language film with Dutch, French, Belgian, Swedish and British backing, with scenic locales in Spain, Hungary, Germany and Austria standing in for the 19th century American frontier.

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Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce in “Brimstone.” (Photo: Momentum Pictures)

Broken into time-fractured chapters titled with imposing religiosity (“Revelation,” “Exodus,” “Genesis” and “Retribution”), Brimstone tells the story of mute Liz (Dakota Fanning), seemingly happily settled into married life with a sideline as a midwife. Things descend quickly to bloodshed when a preacher with severe facial scars, known only as the Reverend (Guy Pearce), shows up in town.

The middle chapters fill in the blanks, which I won’t give away here, except to say Liz and the Reverend go back a long way, as does her suffering at his hands. Found stranded in the desert as a pre-pubescent girl, Liz is “rescued,” only to be sold to a brothel owner where she is raised into a life of prostitution. The Reverend shows up here as well, setting up a violent confrontation between the heroic young woman and the sexually deviant “holy man.”

Intimations of pedophilia and incest hang heavy over the story, and the violence goes well beyond intimations. Whippings, slashings, severed tongues and burnings all get front-and-center treatment. The feminist theme arguably justifies some of the violence, but the story is played out as such a broad parable that the graphic moments seem excessive. No point pretending there is any docudrama realism applied here.

As a film fable, Brimstone is often quite beautiful. Koolhoven and cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (Quills, School of Rock) have crafted some memorably majestic exterior scenes, especially a superbly executed sequence where Liz and her family are hunted by The Reverend in heavy snowfall.

Unfortunately, as drama, Brimstone is so heavy-handed it finally dies under its own self-importance. Charles Laughton’s classic Night of the Hunter seems like an obvious influence here, but Koolhoven gets too grisly to match the fairytale tone of that masterpiece and he certainly doesn’t hint at any of the humor Laughton and star Robert Mitchum brought to the earlier film. Fanning is quite good as the heroine with strong survival skills, though the usually reliable Pearce kind of phones it in as a one-note menace.

Still, with Steven Seagal vehicles, Christian propaganda films, and artless horror knock-offs getting the same kind of release platform, you have to appreciate the aspirations of Koolhoven and company. A lot of tossed-off movies escape into release in the torrent of VOD product, hiding away virtually unadvertised on a single screen in suburbia. Brimstone has enough merit that it shouldn’t have to hide.

Brimstone. Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Cinematography by Rogier Stoffers. Starring Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning.

148 mins. Rated R.

Opens Friday, March 10 at AMC’s South Barrington 24 theaters. Also available through select video-on-demand platforms.

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    Joel Wicklund has been writing about movies for over two decades now and, shockingly, he is still allowed to do so. He was a film critic for Chicagoist before its demise, among other outlets. He insists on claiming more online space here in the hope of indoctrinating more lost souls in his personal cult of cinephilia. Reviews, rants, interviews, features…you get the drift.

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