Somewhere within Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a film with a fiercely feminist slant. Set in front of a fairly typical 19th century western backdrop, the film follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young mother being terrorized by a sinister preacher (Guy Pearce) who has his sights set on her. Throughout its ample 148-minute runtime, Brimstone shows the injustice and abuse that women face, as well as the ways they seek revenge. But while that may sound interesting or even empowering in theory, where Brimstone flies woefully off the rails is in the leering, exploitative way it presents its presumably well-intentioned message.
This isn’t to say that a film can’t be shocking while still making its points. And indeed, in one way I respect Koolhoven’s commitment to brutality; his hand is unflinching and his vision clear. The problem, though, comes from the fact that his vision happens to be so unrelentingly nasty that Brimstone becomes a complete slog by the time it wheezes to the end of its four-chapter structure. The shock value wears off early on, leaving the viewer with a sort of grimness set at the same pitch throughout, rarely evolving after the film’s first half hour or so.
Some of the brutality comes with a side helping of Koolhoven’s pitch-black sense of humour, and it’s easy to see that a lot of Brimstone’s most debauched moments are meant to be very darkly satirical. However, it seems that satire serves no real purpose other than to slightly lessen the blow of the twisted things Koolhoven is presenting on screen. Some viewers will be offended by the crimes that are fairly graphically inflicted on women, children, and animals throughout the film. Others, like myself, will find them trying so hard to be “edgy” that they lose all impact.
Koolhoven is clearly going for an in-your-face brashness (as evidenced even by the film’s title card, which declares it “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”) and his style is not without its merits. Resting in some ethereal realm between arthouse and schlock, there’s an elegant griminess to Brimstone that there just might be a gap in the market for. Despite largely really disliking this film, I still wouldn’t be opposed to checking out what Koolhoven makes next.
Dakota Fanning makes the most of things, delivering a powerful, measured lead performance despite the lack of character development included in the script. As the film settles in and you start calculating exactly how many minutes are left in the runtime, she and the film’s moody, burnished cinematography become two bright spots amid the mire. It would be unfair to expect that to be enough to carry the whole bloated beast, but it does kind of justify the film’s existence, and that’s not nothing.
It’s unclear if the world really needed the creation of a “Dutch psychosexual western” film subgenre, but it’s probably safe to say that Koolhoven has now cornered the market. Unfortunately, Brimstone just never follows through on its sweeping vision. Koolhoven clearly has the visual flair and attitude to pull it off, but it’s yet to be seen if he has it in him to find the restraint and narrative thrust necessary to really get a bizarre film like Brimstone off the ground. It seems unlikely he’ll stop trying, though.