There's a fertile history of European directors tackling the western genre, a phenomenon that has on many occasions produced memorably unorthodox takes on American foundational myths. Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven steps into that lineage with Brimstone, a self-consciously extravagant turkey whose primary distinguishing trait is introducing a level of male-on-female violence unmatched in even the most sadistic spaghetti westerns of the 1970s.
Running 148 minutes and encompassing four chapters (portentously titled along biblical lines, such as “Exodus” and “Retribution”), the film returns over and over to scenes of frontierswomen being ruthlessly degraded by vile men; in a recurring scenario, Koolhoven frames the agonized faces of victims being dealt blood-drawing belt whippings. That Brimstone ultimately postures as a feminist yarn is unsurprising given the current market demand for Strong Female Leads, but its bid for social correctness—manifested most plainly in a last-minute uplifting voiceover—does nothing to make the film's juvenile and numbing fixation on brutality any more palatable.
As Liz, a mute midwife plying her trade in a generically harsh, geographically non-specific Old West, Dakota Fanning bears the brunt of Koolhoven's callous tendencies. In the film's opening act, Liz is blamed for a botched birth that forced her to make an unconscionable decision: sacrificing the baby to save the mother. Her action constitutes a breach of Christian dogma that inflames the town's new reverend, who takes it upon himself, under the aegis of God, to administer the appropriate punishment. Our man of the cloth, played by Guy Pearce with a severity verging on self-parody and a thick Dutch accent that makes Koolhoven's florid dialogue that much more clunky, will go unnamed for the rest of the film—all the better to position the character as a stand-in for the evils of fundamentalism and unchecked masculinity.
When Brimstone moves into its second and third chapters, receding further back in time with each, it's revealed that the reverend's connection to Liz runs much deeper, and creepier, than initially assumed. This temporally shuffled structure provides the film's lone source of momentum, since it compels at each ellipsis a reassessment of the characters' relationships with one another. That said, after the surface interest wears off, it becomes evident that all the flashbacking really does is set the stage for ever-grislier theatrics.
Its bid for social correctness does nothing to make the juvenile and numbing fixation on brutality more palatable.
The second chapter focuses on a younger Liz's apprenticeship and employment at a whorehouse—a sort of amusement park of misogyny run amok, where various good-for-nothings, missing teeth and sporting crude facial hair, holler in the barroom and indulge in grim hate-fucking upstairs. We also learn in this episode that Liz's muteness in the first act is actually a result of self-harm brought about by extreme intimidation from a vengeful client, and yet she's not even the only girl who suffers a tongue slicing here.
No one's denying that the Old West could be a brutal place, and for women specifically, but Koolhoven's hand-me-down vision leaves almost no wiggle room for humanity. (A fleeting bit of camaraderie between Liz and her fellow mute sufferer, played by a wasted Carla Juri, is one all-too-rare exception.) It's telling that another victim of the reverend's craven, self-justifying rule—Liz's mother (Carice van Houten) in chapter three—barely gets a line of dialogue, not to mention an empathizing close-up, while enduring her husband's debasement; her eventual suicide, seen only in the blurry foreground, plays merely as jump-scare catalyst for a particularly ludicrous Pearce monologue.
Koolhoven is dead serious about employing cheesy symbolism, making damn sure we recognize Pearce's villain as the devil incarnate. (One priceless example among many: The reverend, stalking his innocent prey, exclaims that false prophets are “wolves in sheep's clothing,” then proceeds to literally howl in the night.) To the director's credit, Brimstone features smart location work, as it successfully passes off an amalgam of arresting European landscapes as the American heartland. But in its over-reliance on the flashy God's-eye-view, the dissonant bombast of Junkie XL's score, and the dime-a-dozen ominous push-in, the film thoroughly oversells the portent of its scenery. One such dolly move occurs early on when the reverend, giving sermon to a bored-looking pulpit, warns that “retribution is coming.” The line, variations of which are uttered elsewhere, is timed to an expanding close-up of Liz's anxious expression—an instance of double-underlining that essentially spells out Brimstone's entire raison d'être. If only Koolhoven had left it at that.