FILM REVIEW – BRIMSTONE. With Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten, Emilia Jones. Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Rated R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language. 148 minutes.
BRIMSTONE, which is being released on demand and other digital services, is an epic gothic western that boasts several strong performances but may be too violent and dark for some viewers. Dutch director Martin Koolhoven guides an English-speaking cast in this four-chapter story told out of order so that the full back story of the two principal characters isn’t revealed until just before the climactic section.
Dakota Fanning, the one-time child star who easily upstaged actors like Sean Penn, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington, has been working her way into adult roles. Now 23, she appeared in this and the equally disturbing “American Pastoral” last year. She uses her haunting looks to good effect, able to project layers of feelings beneath a seemingly placid surface.
Here she’s Liz, a mute woman on the frontier who works as a midwife and is married to Samuel (Kit Harrington), a farmer who already had a young son. Things go bad with the arrival of the Reverend (a chilling Guy Pearce), whose faith is a strict and cruel interpretation of Christianity. For reasons that will not be revealed until late in the film, Liz is afraid of the Reverend, and with good reason. He is targeting her and her family.
However, this is not the story of Liz’s victimhood. It’s about this deceptively quiet young woman who is determined not only to survive in a world where she’s considered little more than property, but to protect the little girl that she and Samuel have brought into the world. The second chapter shows Liz’s arrival at a “cathouse,” where the proprietor’s brother is the town’s sheriff. Punishment for women who object to their abuse is swift and brutal. It’s a bit disconcerting until one realizes that the reason Liz can now speak is that this is taking place earlier (the chapter titles, taken from Biblical books, are a strong hint).
Fanning plays Liz not as an avenging angel but as a woman constantly improvising to survive her horrific circumstances. While the gore is kept to a minium, there are multiple shootings and other deaths that make it seem that the Reverend’s descriptions of hell are already on Earth. Pierce’s depiction of the Reverend’s false piety may be the most unsettling element of the film given the crimes he justifies with it. By the time we get the “genesis” of his relationship with Liz, we’re ready for a climactic showdown, but things may not end up the way you expect.
“Brimstone” played the festival circuit where some hailed it and some found it too harsh, with a result that it’s getting a very limited theatrical release and going right to digital services. It’s often hard to tell in the absence of reviews and word of mouth what you’re getting with these little-seen movies. In this case, you’re getting a dark and engaging story of two people who won’t give up, one for his evil ends, the other for her chance of survival.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.