Westerns are a pretty rare species in this day and age, but even rarer is the Dutch Western – indeed, I can’t think of any others before Martin Koolhaven’s Brimstone, a long and rather visceral story that seems to be mostly a mediation on the awful treatment meted out to women in the Old West. With a variety of locations in Europe standing in (pretty convincingly) for America, the film plays audacious tricks with chronology, jumping backwards from time to time to reveal what happened earlier. It finally zooms back to its starting point for a violent conclusion.
When we first meet Liz (Dakota Fanning), she is a married woman with a stepson and a young daughter to care for. She is also mute and we learn, fairly quickly, this is because she has no tongue. When not working alongside her husband raising sheep, she is the local midwife, helping to deliver her neighbour’s children. But the arrival of The Reverend (Guy Pearce) sends her into an evident state of terror. It’s clear from the first sight of him that the two of them have history and that he is there to exact some kind of vengeance. As the film progresses, we learn more about their past… and it’s not an appealing story. This is a relationship forged in hell.
While I take Koolhaven’s point that women were treated abysmally at that time, I think there’s a fine line between the depiction of such brutality and inviting viewers to relish in those depictions. As I watch, women have their tongues cut out. They are whipped, punched, sexually violated and generally abused. Mind you, the violence is not confined to the female characters. One man has his innards cut out and wrapped around his neck. Another is hanged whilst trying to take a crap. This is clearly not The Little House on the Prairie. Pearce’s character must be one of the most irredeemably malevolent creatures ever committed to film; indeed, the film hints at the fact that he might not even be human, but some kind of supernatural being that simply cannot be killed. It also seems to be putting forward the suggestion that religion is at the heart of all evil
If you can get past all the violence, it has to be said that Brimstone is superbly filmed and acted – it’s great to see Dakota Fanning back on screen and brilliantly handling what must be a very demanding role. I also particularly like the evocative score by Junkie XL (who wrote the music for Mad Max: Fury Road). But to be honest, this is a hard film to enjoy – too heavy-handed in its sadistic depictions of brutality for my taste, even if it does feature some powerful scenes. Game of Thrones fans may like to know that it also features Kit Harrington in a minor role as a gunslinger.
Those of you with sensitive stomachs may want to give this one a miss – and if you’re already upset by the sheer volume of violence against women in film, it’s definitely not for you.