“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing,” so says the Reverend (Guy Pearce), the black clad, sadistic force of authoritarian Calvinism at the center of this dark western and who disturbs the peace of Joanna (Dakota Fanning), the town’s deaf midwife.
There are four parts to this two-and-a-half-hour film set in the Old West, with chapters titled Genesis, Exodus, Revelation, and the nonbiblical (certainly not New Testament) Retribution. Chronologically out or order, each involves a time period in the cat-and-mouse game of revenge between the Reverend and Joanna. Each has a particular style and tone that is markedly different from the previous chapter, though they have one thing in common: bleakness. Boy, is this film bleak. There are patches of light that come through, but for the most part, we are reveling in the dark recesses of human behavior, with Joanna, her family, and townsfolk kicking against the darkness. That darkness is male oppression, be it religious, financial, or sexual.
Dutch director Martin Koolhoven has created a western as violent as The Hateful Eight and as dour as McCabe and Mrs. Miller. What Koolhoven brings to the party is a stately elegance that contrasts with the horrid acts enacted and a feminist sensibility within Joanna, whose strength through adversity is a rebuke to the violence, both sexual and religious, being rained on her by unworthy but powerful men. And Fanning is up to the task. Mute for most of the film, Joanna projects a quiet but dogged determination to protect her family and find a better world for herself. There’s plenty of backstory that’s revealed, but much of it is not necessary because Fanning conveys it in her luminous eyes.
The film is long, and Koolhoven is in no hurry. Gorgeous tracking shots abound, and there are plenty of side trips that don’t necessarily need to be taken. A father defending the honor of his dead prostitute daughter is a suspenseful vignette, but it doesn’t add more information to what we already know. And Kit Harington is introduced in a sequence that is completely gratuitous.
There’s also a tendency to go over-the-top in an extremely po-faced manner. One character actually has his intestines pulled out of him and wrapped around his neck. He is discovered alive and manages to actually have a conversation. A Tarantino or a von Trier would treat this in a gleeful, schoolboy manner, seeing how far he can push the audience. Koolhoven stages it so matter-of-factly that all you can do is yell, “Come on,” at the screen. If you’re going to go to 11, make a film that supports that. Here it seems out of place.
And a major fault is Guy Pearce’s character, the Preacher. Pearce is wonderfully sadistic, doing horrible things in the name of the Lord but never losing his cool. But unlike most everyone else here, he comes off one-dimensional. He is simply the villainous antagonist. There’s nothing that Pearce can really do about that, and when a film is this long, a cardboard villain can become tiring.
Good thing that there are a lot of diversions. Harington has a lot of fun aping an amoral cowboy who has a particular code of honor. The whorehouse sequence is strong, and this is where the movie comes closest to being a typical western. All in all, Brimstone is enjoyable and certainly worth seeing. It’s very good. One just wishes that it had lived up to the expectations it raised.