What method of torture and death do you prefer? Throat slitting? Rape? Sodomy? Hanging? Tongue cut out? Bullet to the head? Bullet to the heart? Eaten by pigs? Knifed? Horse whipped? Iron mask over face? Aborted farm animals? Burned alive? Defenestration? Self-flagellation? Stillbirth by skull crushing forceps? Choked with your own intestines? Spoiler alert: there is no cannibalism in this movie.
Lutherans have never been less fun loving.
Welcome to the world of Brimstone (2016), Martin Koolhoven’s recalibration of the American western from a Dutch Calvinist perspective. The horrors of hell on earth have rarely been depicted so vividly, sickeningly so, making Dante’s Inferno or Hieronymus Bosch’s tortures and torments pale in comparison. Interesting that this western was not shot in Wyoming or Montana or back lots in California. Instead Koolhaven films in Austria, Germany, Spain, and Hungary. Any desolate area will do when you add a few freestanding churches, cabins, barns and saloons to the big, open territories, so bring on the whorehouses and the high noon shootouts. The West was apparently won not by law and order, not by church and state, but by apocalyptic visions of sin and guilt, retribution not redemption.
With this quasi-religious overlay — Biblical quotes, voice-of-God Reverend strutting and stalking the church services, scripturally sanctioned wife beating and child sex abuse, the insistent earworm of “Abide with Me” hymn, demented angelic choruses (music from Dutch composer Junkie XL) on the soundtrack — the film presents a horrific perspective on misogynistic fanaticism in the lawless west. “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves,” we are warned early on. So watch your back. And front. And side.
Structurally, the film is divided into four chapters, each announced by a prominent blackout and printed title card: Revelation, Exodus, Genesis, and Retribution. In contrast with the Biblical order of first Genesis and last Book of Revelation, Koolhoven upends that by telling the story backward, as in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) or Pinter’s Betrayal (1983). Here we have the immediate present tense horror of Revelation, then travel backward in Exodus and Genesis to discover what led us to this horror, then return to the present tense Retribution to experience the hellacious outcome. Characters age, or de-age as the case may be, and the viewer is left scratching his head as to what and when and where, what generation we’re seeing now, what baby is now this adolescent, why that person has that name now, and what voiceover is from what time and place.
The Reverend, our solid and stolid man in black — think menacing Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter — is played by Guy Pearce. Loved and appreciated in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), L.A. Confidential (1997), Memento, The Hurt Locker (2008), and The King’s Speech (2010), just a few of his many film appearances, here Pearce’s character will be hated and loathed, a despicable, controlling, pathological, cruel and violent preacher-cum-sexual desperado. He’s a Dutch immigrant who brings his Calvinist sangfroid to his family and his parishioners, and his whores. Lutherans have never been less fun loving.
His primary victim, among others, is played by Dakota Manning, child star in I Am Sam (2001), now adult roles in Hounddog (2006) and Every Secret Thing (2015) and is cast in upcoming adaptation of Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ocean’s Eight. Now she’s the daughter intended for the same treatment the Biblical Lot had for his daughters, that is, an incestuous marriage, all justified by the Preacher’s interpretation of holy text. Indeed, both the Old Testament patriarchs and the New Testament St. Paul advise men to conquer and control women who are to be silent vessels for the man’s needs. Rarely has such a horror-terror-thriller-western flick spent so much time with theology, overwrought and misogynistic though it is.
Pearce plays a one note, one dimensional villain through the entire film, while Fanning has a formidable task as an actor for she must spend much of the film mute. She relies on sign language and translated subtitles to communicate as she has sliced off her own tongue in solidarity with silenced, persistent women everywhere. But she too comes across as oddly one dimensional, little evident change in her character, or her face, even for having withstood one gruesome horror after another. Her peace that passes all understanding seems here totally contrived and unconvincing.
It’s all meant to be serious, I suppose, but it’s a heavy and heavy handed take on God and guilt. There will be blood, lots of blood: Fetal, menstrual, virginal, pig, sheep, horse, human, even the stigmata. But beyond the blood, there's not much there, there.
2 of 5 stars
Directed by Martin Koolhoven.
Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Guy Pearce and Carice van Houten.