BRIMSTONE - Film review

Dutch/Flemish movies

by Darren Arnold

Martin Koolhoven is a filmmaker best known for his 2008 Dutch resistance tale Oorlogswinter -- a film that proved to be a real smash on its domestic release -- and for his first English-language feature he has, rather interestingly, opted for a story that’s set in America but was actually filmed in various European countries (no less than six EU nations contributed to financing the picture). 

On a superficial level, Brimstone has the look and feel of a Hollywood movie, but dare to dig a little deeper and you’ll find a sensibility here that’s at odds with most big American studio films.
Set in the19th century American west, Brimstone sports an unusual structure -- the film consists of four chapters, each headed up with an ominous biblical title (“Revelation”, “Exodus”, “Genesis” and “Retribution”), and it takes a bit of time to figure out exactly what’s going on here.  Guy Pearce plays a Dutch preacher whose sermons are largely of the hellfire variety, and he delivers his stern lessons to the settlers with the confidence of someone who firmly believes that no-one else can be right.  However, he isn’t just a severe clergyman, but also a violent psychopath with some very twisted ideas about family, marriage, and the treatment of women.  In the film’s early stages we also encounter a young, mute woman (Dakota Fanning) whose fate will be (and in fact already is) inextricably linked with the preacher.
At two-and-a-half hours, Brimstone is already something of an ordeal before you even consider its content, which is black, brutal stuff; the violence against women (or, more accurately and disturbingly, females) will be reason enough for many to sit this one out.  Such a film could perhaps be made as an American independent picture (see the recent Bone Tomahawk which, like this film, seems to have been at least partly inspired by author Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece Blood Meridian), but never as a Hollywood venture, despite the familiar western tropes evidenced here.  But, it is a stylish, handsomely filmed affair that always manages to engage, and is a movie definitely worth seeing provided you can stomach the strong meat it contains.
Acting-wise, Fanning proves yet again that she’s a real talent who’s seamlessly made the transition from child actor to adult star, while Pearce -- a fine performer -- is saddled with a role that gives him nothing to do other than be completely evil from the moment he first appears.  Decent support comes in the form of Dutch actress (and Koolhoven regular) Carice Van Houten, while Game of Thrones star Kit Harington is good value as a character whose story arc would be very different were this a Hollywood film.  (Seen at the 2016 London Film Festival).


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