Movie Review: ‘Brimstone’
In recent years, the American Western has gotten a new lease on life. With films like No Country for Old Men, Hell or High Water and The Hateful 8 the once one-dimensional genre has shown that’s still capable of being relevant and delivering high drama. But, sadly, while Martin Koolhoven’s new picture Brimstone has its fair share of shootouts and outlaws, it’s lacking restraint, and even a coherent point worth making.
Liz (Dakota Fanning) resides in a small community where she is relied upon to help safely deliver the community’s babies. She is mute, which is not an arbitrary bit of characterization. A new reverend arrives in town played by Guy Pearce. He has some striking scars, including a mark across his neck. As soon as he delivers his first sermon, Liz is racked with fear and panic. What follows is a sometimes thrilling, sometimes excruciatingly boring game of cat and mouse.
As the film’s four chapters illuminate, Liz and the reverend have a shared history marked with feverish religiosity and the appalling mistreatment of women. From scene to scene, the story fumbles for some theme about female resilience in this harsh lawless world, but it’s nearly always drowned out by the next unspeakable turn of events Liz must survive.
Because Fanning is unable to speak, many scenes rely on her ability to convey terror and heartbreak through gestures and expressions, which she always delivers. The supporting cast, including Pearce and Game of Thrones stars Carice van Houten and Kit Harington, all admirably commit to their roles. But the result is always dismal and painstaking, posing the question: What did all these actors see in this material?
Perhaps it was the promise of a Western inhabited by a vengeful minister cutting a swath of misery. Perhaps it’s the film’s chapters, which uniquely march backward into Liz’s dark past. However, the film lacks even the slightest charm or whimsy, the ingredients that tend to give Westerns real appeal.
When the film finally draws to a close (after 148 minutes), there is very little for viewers to take with them besides the painful reminder that history is filled with instance after instance of women baring the brunt of society’s ill will. And although violence can always be expected in a tale from the Wild West, Brimstone is peppered with the type of violence that robs the story of its impact. And honestly, some of which you’ll wish you could unsee.
The Western has a bright future. It’s a uniquely American genre that is still brimming with possibilities long after the west was won, just consider HBO’s Westworld. However, if you’re desperate for a visually striking Western featuring Guy Pearce, go rewatch John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition. It’s a doozy.
Sadly, like Pearce’s reverend, Koolhoven has pieced together a film that, despite its ambition, punishes when it should inspire. Great films beckon you to get lost in their world. Brimstone is a joyless slog that will have you counting the minutes.
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