Brimstone, at once a horror movie, western, and coming of age tale, was written entirely by director Martin Koolhaven, and was a passion project so stressful that it landed him in hospital. You can see why.
We follow the life of Liz, a mute midwife living in a remote American frontier town, as she struggles to protect her family from the demons of her past. One demon in particular shows up in the form of a mysterious new preacher, known only as ‘the Reverend’. As he asserts his presence over Liz’s life, her panic builds, resulting in a captivating opening that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Unfortunately the disjointed chapters that follow result in a loss of tension, as the plot crams in more and more gory detail. The resulting two and a half hour monster is a gruelling ordeal.
Abortion, rape, domestic violence, paedophilia, torture, rape, rape, rape again. This film seems desperate to shock and disturb you, but unlike the Tarantino films it emulates there is nothing more there and you walk away feeling empty. Likewise constant religious imagery and dramatic bible quotes are everywhere, yet have little relation to anything actually going on in the film. The underlying problem is the Reverend, played by Guy Pierce, who is such an overpowered caricature of pure evil it cheapens every act of violence he commits. Like a human Terminator he seems to exist only to be violent, and unfortunately the lack of subtlety in his writing infects the rest of the film.
However, for what it lacks in substance, Brimstone certainly makes up for in style. Slow, stalking camera work creeps after the characters, as if a part of the deadly cat and mouse game, and the use of light is excellent – flickering flames light up the Reverend’s expressionless face while his victims melt in and out of the shadows as they flee. It’s so beautiful to watch, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away, while the relentless pacing and bleak palette combine to create a chillingly dark atmosphere which will stay with you hours after the credits roll. The acting is also superb, with Dakota Fanning and Emilia Jones as adult and child Liz both charismatically expressive and powerful, with the camera on them almost all of the time.
Unfortunately, the actors cannot rescue the writing, and the faultless cinematography, when combined with disturbing and gratuitous violence, can seem inappropriate. Brimstone achieves as a stylish horror flick, but not much else. Not to be watched by those in a bad mood; the only meaning to be found here is the meaninglessness of it all.
Image: Thunderbird Releasing