The Dutch director Martin Koolhoven had a major hit in the Netherlands with his 2008 WWII drama “Winter in Wartime” (released in the U.S. in 2011). He got offers from Hollywood, but chose instead to make “Brimstone,” his first internationally financed English-language production. When you see the movie, it’s easy to understand why he was courted by American studios. The title shot of the film reads “Koolhoven’s Brimstone,” and that’s a kool piece of branding, one that recalls the title shot of “Breaking the Waves” (in which the name “Lars von Trier” appeared in huge letters, with the film’s title in small print). Beyond that, Koolhoven’s work speaks in the bold syntax of franchise Hollywood; it’s full of panoramic eye candy and ultra-violence.
Yet “Brimstone,” despite its large-scale studio flourishes, could never have been bankrolled in Hollywood. Set in wide-open 19th-century spaces, it’s a two-and-a-half-hour sadomasochistic Western domestic horror film in four chapters, and its big theme is the evil of incest. The movie stars Guy Pearce, as a Dutch-immigrant preacher from hell, and Dakota Fanning, as his daughter, who he explicitly wants to marry. He thinks it’s God’s will, and he cites the Bible story of Lot and his daughters to prove it. “Brimstone” may conceivably be the Dutch version of a good Saturday night at the movies, but even given the Western setting and name cast, its chances of having much impact in the U.S. are slim. The movie does indicate, though, that Koolhoven should consider going Hollywood, since that might do a handy job of separating his talent from his pretensions. For “Brimstone” is a lurid, grinding piece of religioso high trash taking itself seriously.
The film opens with an episode that is, on purpose, a little mystifying. Fanning, all trembling valor, plays Liz, a frontier wife with a daughter and stepson; she is also mute, and speaks in sign language. All seems relatively right until the family goes to church and the new preacher shows up. He is called, simply, the Reverend, and he’s got a nasty slash of a scar down his face, and his first glowering sermon is about how he knows — really knows — the pain of hell, and that it’s worse than you think, and that everyone else should know it too, because it’s what’s in store. Nice dude.
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Pearce, in an Amishy beard, plays this dark manipulator with a fearsome Dutch accent and an impeccable smolder. There’s never any reason to doubt that he’s absolute evil, but Pearce makes him crafty — a man in black who exudes a touch of mystery. He comes to visit Liz’s home and tells her, as she hides in the shadows, “I have to punish you.” And punishment, the more violent the better, is the Reverend’s stock in trade. He likes to lock up women’s faces in a kind of head-set chastity belt (a really hideous device), farm animals keep showing up slaughtered, and he brandishes a horsewhip to keep those around him in place. (There’s also a character who gets strangled in his own intestines.) “Brimstone” has two scenes in which women get their tongues cut out, and at one point a five-year-old girl is subjected to a whipping on her bare back. While I reflexively defend a director’s right to stage what he wants, that scene doesn’t sit well, because Koolhoven isn’t a good enough filmmaker to justify the depiction of such a sadistic obscenity.
If you’re wondering where an element of entertainment is in all this, it’s actually there — in the film’s time-tripping structure. After that first episode, entitled “Revelation,” “Brimstone” moves on to “Exodus,” in which a 13-year-old runaway named Joanna (Emilia Jones) lands in a Western town, where she’s brought to the whorehouse over a saloon called Frank’s Inferno. We learn who Joanna is, and it’s at that point that the design of “Brimstone” is revealed: Koolhoven is telling his story backwards, less in a mind-bending “Memento” way than in the good old analog reverse order of something like Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal.” We begin to assemble the movie’s grand arc in our heads, and the trick of “Brimstone” is that the more the film moves into the past, the closer it edges toward its heart of darkness. We would call it domestic sexual abuse, but the Reverend calls it “love,” and that’s what gives the film its one creepy spark of grotesque suspense.
The theme may resonate more in the Netherlands than it does elsewhere. It is, after all, a country that ever since the 1960s, especially in Amsterdam, has profferred a more liberal view than almost any other place of what might euphemistically be termed “youthful sexuality.” The theme of “Brimstone,” to the extent that it has one, is that incest is the demon in that closet. The sickness of Pearce’s Reverend isn’t just that he does what he does, but that he believes he has the right to do it. God is urging him on (in his own mind), yet his view is also depicted as having emerged from the rigid repressive elements of Dutch Christianity. “Brimstone” is like the Dutch sexual-nightmare version of a Catholic horror film, with the Reverend as a kind of sternly lustful father-figure Freddy Krueger. He may not be a supernatural character, but just like Freddy, he’s coming for you.
“Brimstone” lopes and lurches on, going back further in time and then cutting forward to a segment called “Retribution,” which is sort of like “The Revenant” with a slasher windup. The film has gruesomely effective moments, and one at times gets caught up in the gears of its big interlocked narrative, but it also has serious longueurs. For all of Martin Koolhoven’s talent, a hifalutin exploitation picture like “Brimstone” has too much — and not enough — on its mind.