When thinking of the Western genre, the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood instantly come to mind, with films such as The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and Unforgiven, those classic good versus bad stories, with gun-toting cowboys duking it out in saloon bars and riding through vast desert plains. Dutch director Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a completely different kind of Western – a brutal, character-driven revenge story, think Irreversible meets The Killer Inside Me in the old West.
Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a mute midwife who lives in a small town with her husband and two young children. But Liz has a secret – her name is actually Joanna, and her past – and how she came to take on her new name and identity is about to be unravelled with the arrival of the town’s new Reverend (Guy Pearce), whose voice sends chills down Liz’s spine the instant she hears it. She recognises it, and his face, leading her back into fear because this Preacher man isn’t quite who he shows himself to be, and Liz knows the truth…
Brimstone has a two-and-a-half-hour running time, and tells its story in four parts, all out of order, the first three running in backwards order. We meet Liz and her family in the present, as the new Reverend arrives in town. It’s not long before things take a dark turn, as a grieving husband blames Liz for his baby’s death (things you will learn about) and the Reverend saves her and her family from the man when he turns up at their house with a gun. Liz knows exactly who the Reverend is, but we don’t. We do know they have a past though, which is revealed through the next two parts, as a teenage Liz (or Joanna) is found in the desert and delivered to a brothel, where she works until a violent incident forces her to flee, and as a pre-teen Joanna escapes an abusive home with the help of an injured cowboy (Kit Harington) who’s been living in her barn. We then go back to the present, where Liz’s story comes full circle and she’s finally forced to confront the Reverend.
The film’s structure, reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s similarly brutal Irreversible, is a bold move for a film of this kind – John Wayne’s characters never had their stories told backwards – as are the themes of religion, abuse and sex work, all portrayed in unflinching detail. Perhaps the one thing that Brimstone does have in common with its “Cowboys and Indians” predecessors is that, at its heart, it’s a revenge story, of a wronged woman out for the man responsible.
Fanning and Pearce are both fantastic in the leads (Pearce may be the villain but he has as much screen time as Fanning, if not more), giving their all to their characters. Dakota may have lost the limelight to her younger sister Elle in recent years, but her performance here is genuinely great – I find Elle very hit (Live By Night) and miss (20th Century Women), but Dakota here proves herself hugely capable of very mature material, far from her days as innocent young girls in the likes of Man On Fire and War Of The Worlds, in which she made her name. In a perfect world, Brimstone would be her return to stardom (her turn in Kelly Reichardt’s taut eco-thriller Night Moves is also worth a look for another example of her in a more “adult” role). Pearce is equally brilliant, but in a very different way – his unnamed Reverend is a genuinely awful, sadistic person who believes being a man of God justifies his terrible behaviour towards his wife and young daughter.
The film’s one downfall for me though is its tone. It’s so mercilessly, relentlessly grim – we begin with a failed birth and end with a suicide. The story itself is inherently nasty, so such a dark tone is expected and so by the time the film ends up in sub-A Serbian Film territory in its fourth part, you’re not so much watching it as you are enduring it – it’s essentially Western torture porn – but in the best way possible. A few lighter moments certainly wouldn’t have hurt things, although I can see why Koolhoven decided to go down a directly dark road – we really do feel the constant threat Liz feels, and the menacing Preacher is easily one of the nastiest villains in recent memory. An early scene in Liz’s home, as things are beginning to take a turn for the worst, is heart-poundingly tense, a great example of building suspense and dread without horror or gore.
The cinematography, by Rogier Stoffers who previously shot Fanning’s The Secret Life Of Bees, is often genuinely stunning, with overhead shots of the sprawling landscapes that look fantastic and give rare moments of beauty in a very violent, bloody film. Those after a more traditional, Eastwood-esque Western won’t find what they want here, but anyone who appreciates something more dark and daring will certainly find plenty to like. Brimstone may be a long, harsh ride, but a thrilling and rewarding one.
Brimstone opens in UK cinemas on 29 September.