×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Brimstone’

Guy Pearce is a reverend from hell and Dakota Fanning his runaway victim in Martin Koolhoven's epic sadomasochistic Western domestic horror film.

With:
Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Kit Harinton, Carice van Houten.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1895315/

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.

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.

Film Review: 'Brimstone'

Reviewed at Sala Grande (Venice Film Festival), September 3, 2016. (Also in Toronto, London film festivals.) Running time: 148 MIN.

Production: (Netherlands-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden-U.K.) An Embankment Films release of a Filmwave, Prime Time, The Jokers Films, N279 Entertainment, X Filme production. (International sales: Embankment Films, London.) Producers: Els Vandevorst, Uwe Shott. Executive producers: Jean-Baptiste Babin, Sheryl Crown, Hugo Grumbar, Tim Haslam, Nicki Hattingh, Nik Powell, Anne Sheehan, Joel Thibout.

Crew: Director, writer: Martin Koolhoven. Camera (color, widescreen): Rogier Stoffers. Editor: Job Ter Burg.

With: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Kit Harinton, Carice van Houten.

More Film

  • Colin Firth

    Cannes: Colin Firth WWII Drama 'Operation Mincemeat' Sells Out Internationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Operation Mincemeat,” a buzzy World War II drama that stars Colin Firth, has sold out international territories at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Warner Bros. has picked up several key markets, as has Central and Eastern European distributor Prorom. The film reunites Firth with John Madden, his “Shakespeare in Love” director. FilmNation Entertainment and Cross [...]

  • Meikincine Scoops Three Titles at Cannes

    Meikincine Scoops Three More Titles at Cannes Film Market (EXCLUSIVE)

    Lucia and Julia Meik’s boutique sales company Meikincine has announced three acquisitions out of this year’s Cannes Film Market: Gaspar Scheuer’s “Delfin”- which world premiered in the Cannes Écrans Juniors Competition; Marcelo Paez Cubells’ “Which”– part of this year’s Blood Window Showcase for films in progress; Sebastián Mega Díaz’s romantic comedy “The Big Love Picture.” [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Documentarian Patricio Guzman On Chilean Soul And Mountains

    CANNES — Renowned Chilean documentary filmmaker  Patricio Guzmán (“The Battle of Chile,” “The Pearl Button”) has returned to the country to shoot “The Cordillera of Dreams,” 46 years after he was exiled under Augusto Pinochet’s regime of terror. The feature has received a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Sold by Paris’ Pyramide International, [...]

  • Picture Tree Intl. Inks First Deals

    Cannes: Picture Tree Intl. Inks First Deals on 'Traumfabrik' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Picture Tree Intl. has clinched first deals on romantic drama “Traumfabrik,” which is produced by Tom Zickler, the former producing partner of German star Till Schweiger. The film has been picked up by Leomus in China; Flins & Piniculas in Spain; LEV Films/Shani Film in Israel; Taiwan in Moviecloud; Media Squad in Czech Rep., Hungary [...]

  • Cannes Film Review: 'Alice and the

    Cannes Film Review: 'Alice and the Mayor'

    Sophomore director Nicolas Pariser follows his politically engaged debut, “The Great Game,” with an even deeper plunge into the disconnect between political theory and the workings of government in the unmistakably French “Alice and the Mayor.” Deeply influenced by Eric Rohmer in the way it aspires to use philosophical dialogue to reveal something about the [...]

  • 'Diego Maradona' Review: The Football Legend

    Cannes Film Review: 'Diego Maradona'

    You expect the director of a biographical documentary to have a passion for whoever he’s making a movie about. But the British filmmaker Asif Kapadia spins right past passion and into obsession. He doesn’t just chronicle a personality — he does an immersive meditation on it. Kapadia plunges into the raw stuff of journalism: news [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content