“Retribution is coming”
At a time when many supposedly God-fearing Christians in America blindly fear the idea of a Muslim insurgence implementing Sharia law (itself often warped by supposed Allah-fearing men to retain patriarchal control much like their Republican counterparts dictating what a woman can and can’t do with her body), it’s crucial to remember the Bible isn’t necessarily so different as far as fanatical readings go. When the word of God can be bent to the whims of man, anything is possible. Perverts can marry daughters to render covetous desires removed of sin. Murder and maiming become legal acts of retribution allowed due to “just” reason. And man becomes a woman’s keeper, women slaves for earthly duty. The Koran and Bible both fall prey to interpretation, archaism, and male gaze.
Dutch writer/director Martin Koolhoven seeks to remind us of this truth with his latest, Brimstone. Here’s a modern parable bathed in blood, taboo, and desperation—one that ensures we learn never to expect a happy ending when life is hardly anything but tragic. To live becomes a fight, our strength to combat chaotic forces thrust upon us proving more imperative to our soul’s salvation than success or failures in that endeavor. We become victims as soon as we breathe our first breath, beholden to guardians that we can’t know are good enough to do right by us. We hope we can find worthy role models to mold ourselves on and pray we may survive the trials we will inevitably face. Evil is out there. And evil often wins.
You don’t have to look further than Liz’s (Dakota Fanning) face upon hearing the voice of her town’s new Reverend (Guy Pearce). It’s fight or flight in an instant, her thus far calm and collected manner chilled to the bone. We’ve already met this mute midwife alongside daughter Sam (Ivy George) always in tow to interpret her signing. To this point we’re unsure why she cannot talk, but think nothing of it. All we know for certain is that the town loves her. Her husband Eli (William Houston) loves her. And her adopted son Matthew’s (Jack Hollington) rebellious adolescence puts mean-spirited words like “She’s not my mother” in his mouth. Liz is dutiful, conservative, and stoic beyond her lack of voice. So when she freezes, we take note.
There’s an obvious connection and it’s ripe with an evil we can only begin to imagine. We’ll soon learn why she’s mute, why he has a scar running over his eye from brow to cheek, and why his appearance earns so visceral a reaction. It will be a brutally violent, hopeless journey through four chapters mimicking Biblical notions of Revelation, Exodus, Genesis, and Retribution. The first reveals Liz and The Reverend’s long-awaited reunion. The second (a prequel) depicts the escape setting up that collision course. The third (a prequel to the second) shows the corruption of holy men and blind allegiance given to them despite what’s seen with open eyes. And the fourth brings us back to the present to witness how their parallel tales will ultimately conclude.
It’s over-the-top in premise where every bad thing that can happen in its neo-western era of gold prospecting does. There’s the notion that God sent a very specific group of Dutch to the New World by purposeful selection. There’s injured cowboys (Kit Harington‘s Samuel and Jack Roth‘s Wolf) being nursed to health in secret by a young girl (Emilia Jones‘ Joanna); a brothel owner with a light touch but unsympathetic actions in Frank (Paul Anderson); prostitutes with hearts of gold in Elizabeth (Carla Juri) and Sally (Vera Vitali); and vengeful husbands getting drunk enough through tragedy to accuse women of being witches (Bill Tangradi‘s Nathan). We become witness to new beginnings trapped by what came before them and harsh endings with no certainty of a future to follow.
At two-and-a-half hours, thoughts of it dragging with multiple swaths of time that wouldn’t be missed on the cutting room floor are unavoidable. But they would be misguided. Not only do the evenly spaced chapter breaks help keep things fresh by moving us back and forth through time, Koolhoven has a knack for distilling each to its most intense moments of action. I’m not talking about gunfights or horse chases, though. I mean quiet moments where expressions speak louder than words and serene images of deserted, snow-covered roads are shattered by a solitary bullet. The myriad coincidences of fate and the horror of man never felt melodramatic to me even though it’s impossible not to see how pulpy it all is. Brimstone becomes trashy thriller as high art.
I say this because the production value is impressive and the cast immaculately chosen. From conflicted characters like Juri and Vitali; pure at heart if not pure at action ones like Carice van Houten as Joanna’s mother or Harinton’s empathetic drifter; or absolute saints like Houston, these roles are made real through pragmatic action and necessary sacrifice. Prepare for a lot of death to surround Liz and Joanna as those that love them often prove that love by becoming their saviors whether willing or not. It’s a parable about surviving unimaginable pain and injustice at the hands of someone who should be protector, not predator. It’s about rebirth only so far as replenishing one’s strength to be ready once the fight rears its head again.
Pearce is monstrous in his performance as a man looming above them all, almost more sinister in the past as a “pious” servant than in a present that shifted his desires from “love” to hate despite retaining the same endgame of pleasure. He relishes this character’s authoritative demands and unceasing drive to seek his revenge. Watching his devolution is to see a hidden but no less active evil bubble to the surface until achieving full control. His proclivities were unsoundly justified by what he believed was God’s voice, but it’s abundantly clear that the Devil’s whispers were all he heard. The notion that sins can be forgiven by sins is a slippery slope to damnation and completely understandable for someone who believes Hell already awaits regardless.
He’s a curse following Liz everywhere, an unpredictable manifestation of patriarchal force attempting to dictate her life. Whenever she pushes back, he takes more. When she’s victorious, he hits back with devastating precision. And even if success were possible, it’ll never be enough. Our existence remains arduous, the lengths we go to be free always growing until they appear insurmountable. Koolhoven has drawn a nightmarish picture of what it’s like to be controlled without hope of escape. He and Fanning have created a woman fierce in her love and independence, striving to give her daughter the life she never had. Through the Reverend’s actions, God deemed her inferior—a pawn bent to his whim. Fate might ultimately catch her, but her road there is hers to pave alone.