Brimstone is a blood-drenched, ultraviolent western epic divided into four chapters, Revelation, Exodus, Genesis, and Retribution (the biblical theme is a strongly featured part of the presentation here). The plot features The Reverend (Pearce) arriving in a small town on the old western frontier, which freaks out local deaf mute midwife Liz, played by Dakota Fanning (it’s not as odd as it sounds), who lives with her husband and two kids. However, it soon becomes clear that Liz and The Reverend have some sort of shared past, and The Reverend is twisted and dangerous. After he viciously and violently kills her husband Liz escapes, and we learn in flashback exactly what that past entails.
If that synopsis is vague, it is wilfully so on my part, because I don’t have any wish to spoil the major beats of this film. There are twists and turns throughout, although Martin Koolhoven has created a story that never veers into the ridiculous or unbelievable. Brimstone is dark, brutal and has a lot to say about misogyny, essentially rendering the majority of its male characters as horrible human beings, which is certainly an interesting choice. However, the real strength of the determination imbued into the female characters; Liz especially is strong despite enormous adversity and horrific events that befall her from childhood onwards. Fanning does brilliantly to balance a sense of innocence and horror with a real grit in a complex and challenging role, while Carice Van Houten shines in the relatively limited screen time she gets as Anna (again no spoilers here). On the male side of things, Kit Harrington does fine with the screen time he is afforded, but he is hampered by his accent and his comparative lack of character development when compared with The Reverend, Liz or Anna, but he certainly doesn’t do himself a disservice here.
As much as Brimstone is about the female characters, Guy Pearce’s performance as chief antagonist, The Reverend is nothing short of terrifying. Like all good villains The Reverend is not only chillingly evil, but seems supremely confident in the righteousness of his ideals and his actions. Pearce’s accent (vaguely Dutch, as per his character’s origins) adds to the depth of character. In the hands of a less accomplished actor this role could have been reduced to a cartoonish, overblown, over-the-top, one dimensional protagonist. However, Pearce manages to walk a fine line between being outrageous and controlled. The result is a dark, measured, and ultimately disturbing character with a taste for violence, sadism and cruelty. The Reverend will certainly live uncomfortably in my brain for a while after seeing Brimstone.
The narrative structure of Brimstone is designed to lend itself to the unravelling mystery of the story at hand, and I felt it suited the story being told. It never gets to the point of confusion, despite jumping around to various time periods, and it gives plenty of drama and gravitas to the film’s big reveals. It also helps with spacing out the gory levels of violence on show at points, which are certainly not for the feint of heart. However, at least with the way the story is laid out it gives these moments the gravity they deserve. Visually, Brimstone makes fantastic use of the landscapes of the frontier, exploiting the backdrops of open plains and vast expanses to both show the isolation of the characters, but also the possibility of escape into the vast open landscape. When these landscapes are paired with striking visuals (there is a scene involving fire which is particularly arresting) the effect is almost magical.
The only major drawback with Brimstone, perhaps, is that the film feels like it runs a little longer than necessary, and it is a long run time for what is essentially a revenge film. There are certainly points where the story lingers a little longer than it ought to, but I’m not sure that it isn’t by design especially in the middle two chapters, just to ram home the grim nature of the suffering and squalor being experienced by the key characters. I would also suggest that the run time means that the final chapter runs out of steam somewhat, especially after the big confrontation late on. However, it’s not a wholly dissatisfying end to things, even if it doesn’t deliver the happy ending that a less dark story might have done.
Brimstone is not an easy watch. Martin Koolhoven has crafted something which frequently makes you want to avert your eyes, especially during two scenes which can generously be described as "mutilation". However, it is also an incredibly gripping, blood-soaked affair which has some great performances and some brilliant cinematography, even if the film is perhaps slightly too long to be considered truly great.