'Brimstone': Venice Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A movie like a sermon.

Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning and Kit Harington star in this Protestant Western, the first English-language film from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven.

Brimstone, the first English-language feature from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime), is probably best described as a Protestant Western. With its punishing 149-minute running time and relentlessly gloomy tone but ultimately principled moral message, it feels like a sermon delivered by an extremely cine-literate preacher. This very cinematic if not quite epic drama, divided into four chapters the first three of which are arranged in reverse chronological order, tells the story of a mute young woman’s fight for survival in the 19th century American West, where an evil reverend seems hell-bent on making her life miserable.

Because the protagonists are played by Dakota Fanning and Guy Pearce and because movie fans are always looking for a fresh take on a beloved genre, there should be some interest for this impressively assembled oater, which was shot in various European locales. But whether distributors can convince regular multiplex audiences to plunk down their hard-earned cash for almost two-and-a-half hours of doom and gloom remains to be seen. At the very least, Koolhoven deserves props for avoiding false advertising with his well-chosen title.

Following a prologue, Brimstone introduces Liz (Fanning), whose tongue was cut out and who thus has to speak in a primitive form of sign language, though she can hear people just fine. She’s a midwife with a young daughter who has married kind widower Eli (William Houston), who runs a small ranch and has a young son. Their peaceful lives are disturbed when a new reverend (Guy Pearce) rides into town.

The scars on his face already give him a very sinister look but when he utters his first line — “Beware of false prophets, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” from the book of Matthew — he does so with so much seething malice that you just know he’s being conveniently autobiographical. All it would take to turn his introduction into an Saturday Night Live sketch would've been a wink to the camera. Instead, Koolhoven (and the preacher) are dead-serious throughout.

The otherwise nameless man, clad in black, blames Liz for the death of a baby she delivered whose head was too big, forcing her to make a split-second choice between the life of the mother and the child. But the decision about who gets to live and who gets to die, the reverend booms, “belongs only to God.” To clear up any possible confusion, he tells Liz: “I’m here to punish you.” And for those slow on the uptake, Eli helpfully asks him “Why?” when the reverend sticks a knife in him. The man of the cloth replies: “Because she loves you.” Clearly, this is not a God-fearing man so much as a full-on psycho able to find convenient excuses for all his excesses in the Bible.

Across the first three chapters, “Revelation,” “Exodus” and “Genesis,” Liz’s life story is told backwards, with the viewers being taken from, respectively, her modest but happy life at the homestead with Eli and the kids to a small-town brothel where she was forced to work as a teenager and then to the farm where she grew up. Many fundamental questions are answered along the way, including what Liz’s precise connection is to the psychotic preacher, who Joanna (Emilia Jones) and another mute woman also called Liz (Carla Juri) are, and exactly how the protagonist lost her tongue.

But one of the main questions remains largely unanswered: What does the story gain by going back into the past in reverse order rather than being told chronologically? If anything, Koolhoven has painted himself into a corner because the film’s unifying theme, the maltreatment of women at the hand of righteous-acting men, takes much too long to crystallize.

It is practically absent from chapter one, in which Liz leads a happy family life that’s disturbed by an evil male protagonist only one step up from a cartoon villain because his motivation and backstory aren’t yet known.

In chapter two, the theme starts to surface but it is linked much more to the secondary female characters, including those played by Juri and Vera Vitali, than to Fanning’s Liz. The way in which Koolhoven shoots the bordello scenes also doesn't help, since the story’s point-of-view is not close enough to the women. At times, this allows for the possibility that the film might be sympathetic to the women’s plight but also likes to indulge in the sight of seeing them naked and/or being abused. (This strange bipolar approach might have something to do with the director wanting to respect some of the codes of a genre that doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to female representation).

The third chapter, which kicks off more than 80 minutes in, finally ties everything together as viewers get to know the (unscarred and younger) reverend, his meek and deferential Dutch wife (Carice van Houten), his congregation of “chosen ones” and Liz’s younger self. It is only here that the behavior of the preacher in chapter one starts to make sense in hindsight, though his psychology finally doesn’t really extend beyond being a male, Calvinist and chauvinistic pig who has hijacked religion to explain away his own devious desires.

If the always naturalistic approach to character of the oft-mute Fanning feel like a huge contrast to Pearce’s fire-and-brimstone (if unsteady in accent) appearances early on, it starts to feel more of a piece with the material by the film’s third — and by far the best — chapter, which includes the visit and subsequent hiding (shades of Koolhoven’s own Winter in Wartime) of a certain Samuel (van Houten’s Game of Thrones co-star Kit Harington). This enigmatic atheist is a man full of contradictions who might be violent to others if he thinks his survival is threatened (this is the Wild West after all) but who at least seems to respect women. He is the kind of subtly nuanced creation that populated many of Koolhoven's Dutch films, which included some comedies — though one would never guess that based on this movie alone. But here, it takes too long for the nuances to finally creep in amidst all the heavy religious imagery, whippings, lashings and buckets of blood.

Koolhoven has reunited a veritable who’s who of Dutch talent behind the camera, starting with cinematographer Rogier Stoffers (School of Rock), a fan of overhead shots and his regular production designer, Floris Vos, who manages to make the locations in Germany, Austria, Hungary and Spain feel like a coherent slice of the nondescript American West, complete with mud, rain and, in chapter four, snow. Unlike the story’s heavily Protestant and female angles, which bring something new to the genre, the score from Tom Holkenborg (Deadpool, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) is an old-fashioned orchestral affair, with the strings swelling at all the appropriate moments.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition); also in Toronto
Production companies: N279 Entertainment, X-Filme Creative Pool, New Sparta Films, Filmwave, Prime Time, The Jokers Films, Dragon Films, Avrotros, Film Vast, Paradiso Films
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice van Houten, Paul Anderson, William Houston, Ivy George, Bill Tangradi, Jack Roth, Jack Hollington, Carla Juri, Vera Vitali, Kit Harington
Director-screenwriter: Martin Koolhoven
Producers: Els Vandevorst, Uwe Schott
Executive producers: Nick Hattingh, Sheryl Crown, Anne Sheehan, Tim Haslam, Hugo Grumbar, Joel Thibout, Jean-Baptiste Babin, Nik Powell
Director of photography: Rogier Stoffers
Production designer: Floris Vos
Costume designer: Ellen Lens
Editor: Job ter Burg
Music: Tom Holkenborg
Casting: Des Hamilton, Lara Manwaring
Sales: Embankment Films

Not rated, 149 minutes