Director: Martin Koolhoven
Cast: Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning, Emilia Jones, Carice Van Houten, Kit Harrington
I left the screening of Brimstone with an overwhelming feeling, but I couldn’t pinpoint just what it was. Scenes played out in my mind as I walked out of the theatre. I tried to identify just what I loved about it when I was alone with my thoughts (and countless other passengers, of course) in the subway ride back home. The movie itself felt like an epic, with chapters that seemed to keep coming, and had an intensity I was not expecting. It was one of those rare movies that just stuck.
This is the type of movie that is hard to discuss, plot-wise, without potentially spoiling anything. Essentially, it is a movie about Liz (played by Dakota Fanning) who has a clear connection with the new Reverend (played by Guy Pearce). She seems threatened by him, and he appears quite menacing; he’s hunting her, but the audience does not know why. We learn more with each passing minute of the film and see Liz fight back against his pursuit.
To start, I must rave about the writing. I’m a sucker for original screenplays–it’s my favourite Oscar category–and writer/director Martin Koolhoven wrote the shit out of this. Sometimes movies that have segments actually divided in “chapters” can feel pretentious, but this felt right to me. The dialogue (and, often, lack thereof) was executed with precision. I realized after viewing that I was subconsciously memorizing my favourite lines; making mental notes so I could write them down later and enjoy all over again.
Although Brimstone is genre-bending, it is very much a western at heart, as it is clearly set in the old west and has some common tropes, the most obvious, as the film plays out, being revenge and justice of some form. The refreshing thing, for me, was to see such a powerful woman in Fanning’s Liz, and even some of the supporting female characters, in a genre that is typically associated with men, manliness, manly men, and well, you get the idea. Essentially, misogyny. The men in the film, particularly Pearce’s Reverend, symbolize religion, politics, patriarchy, and power. This is a very powerful man, and his character does not even have a personal name. The women are just out for survival. Almost every female character is preyed on by men in some way, whether they are used as sex objects, beaten, etc. And the bottom line is that they have no rights. With all that said, Liz is no victim. She fights to be just as cunning, just as powerful, and just as equal as her male counterparts. Through that lens, this is an interestingly feminist film.
As my love affair with this film became strong rather quickly, I decided to learn as much as I could about it and listened to Brimstone’s Venice Film Festival’s press conference. One takeaway tidbit from it that I love is that Koolhoven acknowledged that he was inspired by The Night of the Hunter (1955). In a “knowing then what I know now” type of hindsight, I can see that the references are actually abundant. There’s a small visual nod to the young girl in The Night of the Hunter. Fanning’s character has a rag doll just like the young girl did. The doll plays an entirely different role in Brimstone than it did in Hunter; it’s clearly just a love letter from Koolhoven. The parallels I noticed are more with the characters or the way the actors portray them. In the first chapter of Brimstone, Liz does not speak, but manages to form a connection with the audience through her very expressive face, particularly her eyes. Anyone that has ever seen a film with Lillian Gash in it, like Hunter, knows what I’m talking about there. Pearce delivered a grisly performance as The Reverend, as a sort of terrifying Amish form of Abe Lincoln, but his walk and his form were so deliberate in a very similar manner to Robert Mitchum.
Brimstone was a film that reminded me of why I love film, as it is very clear to me that Koolhoven loves filmmaking. It left my head light, my body weak, and my mind needing to sort its feelings (which was helped thanks to Women Write About Comics allowing me to blither on about it here). It is a film whose beginning will look completely different with a second viewing. I am already looking forward to it.