PLOT: A young semi-mute mother (Dakota Fanning) is brought to the bowels of hell when a sinister preacher (Guy Pearce) rides into town and threatens to destroy everything she holds dear.
REVIEW: In a rightful time when equality for women is a topically pressing issue around the globe, leave it to Dutch writer/director Martin Koolhoven to give us, in his recompensatory BRIMSTONE, a measuring stick to see both how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go when it comes to the societal mistreatment of women in the name of religious fervor and scriptural literalism. In a way, despite however harshly sobering, this movie is needed. Though an undoubted challenge to watch at times, as misogynistically mean-spirited as it comes off, as deeply disturbing as the violence can be, Koolhoven has delivered an impeccably crafted, sweeping western-epic in this resounding four-part disharmony of the biblically justified evil that men do. With overlapping chapters of grotesque eruptions of violence, a near-career performance by Guy Pearce and a dense 160 minute runtime, BRIMSTONE fumes with undeniable potency!
Broken into four nonlinear chapters, the first three of which inverted from the religious text – Revelations, Exodus, Genesis (then Retribution) – BRIMSTONE follows young Joanna (Fanning) at various stages in her life. In order to avoid jump-around confusion, let’s lay bare the vitals. Fearfully oppressed by her own father, The Reverend (Pearce), the story of Joanna’s life closely adheres to the biblical triptych. In Genesis, we learn the poor girl is lustily targeted by her own lecherous father when becoming a “woman” and entering her first menstrual cycle. Citing a permissive loophole in the scripture, The Reverend justifies this heinous lust. In a harrowing means of escape, Joanna evades the reverend, where, in Exodus, she ends up as a harlot in a local saloon-brothel. More intense violence ensues, usually by the hand a man towards a woman. The Reverend again tracks his daughter down, but she wisely assumes the identity of a fallen friend named Liz before making yet another daring getaway.
Revelations, which starts the film, shows an older Joanna (now Liz) with a husband and young daughter. Since assuming her new identity, feigning to be the mute Elizabeth (as we’ll later learn), Joanna no longer speaks. In fact, she excises her own damn tongue! When the Reverend tracks her down once more, this time he isn’t so kind. Not to give it all away, but there’s some graphically searing imagery here involving near fatal disembowelment and strangulation with one’s own innards. Gnarly! In fact, the whole movie is weighted with indefatigably gruesome violence, often inflicted upon women and young children. There are instances bound to make you wince, writhe and squirm in your seat, quite unpleasantly so. By the time Liz exacts her own Retribution in the fourth chapter, there’s not a single shred of order, decorum, morality or chivalry left among any of the characters. They operate with chaotic lawlessness, even under the perceived order of God.
But by opting for the elliptical framing of his four chapters, Koolhaven somewhat fails to provide what should be the climactic payback with a momentous buildup. By showing us what happens in the end so early in the film, we aren’t afforded the sort of necessary crescendo of action that makes the recompense feel like a one-hundred percent worthy payoff. Granted, the way in which Joanna handles The Reverend, her father, is quite satisfying on its own, but I don’t think anywhere near as emotionally affecting as it would be had the film been edited in chronological order. Had the revenge been mapped and charted a bit more properly, a bit timelier, the warranted impact of the ultimate resolution would likely be more powerful. And it should be, as Joanna deserves the empowerment she earns at the end of her story. For, at its heart, despite how inexcusably cruel and unforgiving it is toward women, I have to believe BRIMSTONE serves to show what the female gender can and has endured for centuries, wrongly so, and how women can summon the inner strength to overcome such patriarchal abuse. Such evils that men do shall never be excused, and for all the evidence to the contrary, in the end, the movie doesn’t.
I can see how one might feel otherwise, however. Because of the way in which the movie ends, a cynical outlook might be taken. But it’s the generational propagation Joanna puts forth that bolsters her heroism in the end. We won’t betray much more, other than to say, outside of the contrived framing device, there aren’t too many weaknesses in BRIMSTONE. Sure there’s some anachronistic dialogue that renders parts incredible at times (not sure “go f*ck yourself” was part of the 19th century vernacular), and Pearce rocks a pretty thick, indeterminable accent throughout. But his performance is so bone-chillingly evil that this is a minor gripe at worst, a memorable affectation at best. Fanning, for her part, comes on stronger as the film unspools, tasked with silent-acting dependent on well-read facial expressions and tortured body language. To be honest, I wasn’t too sure about her performance early on, but as the epic unwound, I found her to be more of an asset than a liability. But undoubtedly, what this movie says about religion and the justification of it by men who subjugate women is where it strikes hardest. BRIMSTONE is a piously impugned, robustly muscular, grand gestalt of ultra-wicked western sprawl.