Brimstone Review

An unnerving Western with a sharp female perspective, this film is a series of gruesome surprises from Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven. Told in four chapters that unfold out of sequence, the film’s brutality is almost balletic as it explores the horrors of this rampantly male-dominated society. It’s also gripping, and the characters and themes are seriously haunting.

The main setting is a small desert town, where the mute Liz (Dakota Fanning) is the local midwife. She lives with her gentle husband Eli (William Houston), their daughter (Ivy George) and his son (Jack Hollington) from a previous marriage. Then a new Reverend (Guy Pearce) arrives in town, and immediately takes exception to Liz. As their feud escalates, the Reverend preaches hellfire and damnation messages specifically about Liz. He’s also secretly stalking her and making threats that escalate into serious nastiness. But all of this is connected to Liz’s past as a young girl (Emilia Jones) living in a brothel, and earlier with her mother (Carice van Houton) as she encounters a desperate fugitive (Kit Harington).

The further back we go, the more interconnected everything becomes, with unexpected revelations that link the characters. There are also huge plot twists and earth-shattering events that don’t always ring true. All of this is anchored by Fanning in a remarkably alert performance that requires her to convey (or attempt to conceal) her thoughts and feelings with her expressive eyes. Opposite her, Pearce is practically twirling his moustache as the sadistic villain, a terrifying psycho without any other sides to him. Thankfully, he’s surrounded by characters who are layered and fascinating, providing both a blast of earthy realism and some very deep emotions.

The film is shot beautifully, with lavish flourishes that add plenty of style. The landscapes (it was mostly shot in Spain) are spectacular, capturing the sense of life in this wild frontier town where justice is elusive and the physically strongest will rule the day. Yes, there’s a subtle sense of subtext that a bully like Donald Trump would love it here. In this place, women are basically powerless, prohibited from making even the simplest decisions for themselves, which makes the feisty, sharp Liz feel like a revolutionary force as she refuses to be abused any longer. So as she takes control of her destiny and sets out to avenge the inequities of her life, we can’t help but cheer her on. Even when things get seriously grisly.