Women never have a particularly great time in Westerns. Aside from the odd outlier, the genre generally features them as either helpless victims or sex workers, though both endure intense violence at the hands of men. Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone takes this to new extremes; spending most of its 140 punishing minutes inflicting humiliation, misery and trauma upon its female characters.
By the time the credits roll, you’ll have seen women intimidated, leered at, strangled, punched, whipped, beaten, gagged, having their tongues cut out, sexually menaced by their fathers, repeatedly raped and eventually executed. It’s a smörgåsbord of misogyny: a film populated by yellow-teethed, half feral, sexually psychotic men preying on women whose only plausible escape is suicide. Brimstone is less a battle of the sexes and more a massacre.
Split into four chapters, each with portentous Biblical titles like ‘Revelations’ and ‘Exodus,’ the film consists of episodes in the miserable life of Liz Brundy (Dakota Fanning). We first meet her as a mute but happy wife living in an isolated township. Things are pretty rough, but she at least has a caring family. That all changes though with the arrival of a scarred, Satanic Reverend (Guy Pearce), who assures the congregation that hell is very real, and he’s speaking from first-hand experience.
The Reverend is soon terrorizing Liz, explaining that he’s here to “punish her.” From that point on, we’re on a rollercoaster of nightmarishly violent imagery (including a man strangled with his own intestines) and rivers of blood, of both arterial and menstrual varieties. It’s a bit like being trapped inside a Nick Cave song.
As the plot unfolds, it soon begins making its core point that, get this, incest is bad. Fathers make speeches explaining how God approves of them raping and marrying their virginal daughters, spying on them as they undress while barely concealing their boners. Lot and his daughters are evoked as justification, the characters spiralling down a perverted chain of religious reasoning that can only conclude in nightmares.
So yeah, not exactly one for date night. Still, all the above sounds like powerful, intriguing stuff – and I’m not going to turn down a bold film that pulls no punches in showing the harsh reality and consequences of a misogynistic society. But Koolhoven ladles on so much brutality that the effect is first numbing and then ludicrous.
It reaches a peak point about midway through the film when we enter The Inferno, an old West brothel that feels conjured up from kinky fantasy more than reality. It’s staffed by clichéd cynical whores eager to indoctrinate young flesh and customers so grotesquely drawn they reminded me less of cowboys and more of something out of Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s so broad that it drowns out any subtlety or character, and is just one of many points where it feels like the director’s primary goal is to shock.
This is quickly compounded by Guy Pearce’s villainous Reverend. The usually reliable Pearce is hamstrung by clunky dialogue and an iffy Dutch accent. Played with a ramrod stiff intensity and little detectable emotion other than simmering contempt, it’s baffling that this guy would have sexual desire for anybody, let alone his daughter. Even his goal of setting up some pure Christian utopia in the New World is never properly defined, leaving the main antagonist a personality-free cipher that even Pearce can’t make interesting.
Dakota Fanning fares a little better, despite the not inconsiderable hurdle that she’s (mostly) completely mute. Her general role in the film is to look pale, drawn and horrified as bad men first threaten to her, then harm her. Fanning does this about as well as you could, her expressive features the one note of true honesty in the film.
When the credits eventually rolled, I’d concluded that Koolhoven is a wannabe Lars von Triers, with the film occupying the same aggressively audience-unfriendly territory as something like Breaking the Waves or Dogville, but with only a fraction of the complexity and none of the pitch black humor. Brimstone is undeniably idiosyncratic, but it’s also an unpleasant, dull and indigestible film.
Women never have a great time in Westerns, but Brimstone takes it to extremes; inflicting endless humiliation, misery and trauma upon its female characters.