No country for young women

Dakota Fanning delivers a fine per­for­mance, but there’s too lit­tle light and shade in Martin Kool­hoven’s re­lent­less west­ern, writes Donald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

BRIM­STONE Di­rected by Martin Kool­hoven. Star­ring Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Kit Har­in­ton, Carice van Houten. Club, limited re­lease, 148 min

If you hear that Brim­stone sees a man stran­gled by his own in­testines and al­lows two women to have their tongues cut out then you might rea­son­ably as­sume that Martin Kool­hoven’s west­ern is in the same school as the ex­cel­lent

Bone Tom­a­hawk. Fun for ev­ery psy­chopath in the fam­ily.

It’s not quite that. Stretch­ing out over an ab­surd two and a half hours, the film is more at home to a class of sim­mer­ing Old Tes­ta­ment men­ace. At its best, Brim­stone is like be­ing caught up in one of God’s more en­ter­tain­ing di­vine rages. At its weak­est, the feel­ing is close to Sun­day morn­ing at the wrong end of an an­gry ser­mon.

The first three quar­ters is told in three blocks that take us back in time. We be­gin near the end with Liz (a fine Dakota Fanning, claw­ing back some ground from Elle) and Eli (Wil­liam Hous­ton), two share­crop­pers liv­ing on the Amer­i­can frontier. A mute who com­mu­ni­cates by sign lan­guage, Liz seems emo­tion­ally con­nected to her hus­band, his son by an­other marriage and their own daugh­ter. The edges

be­gin to fray when an ap­par­ently de­ranged min­is­ter (Guy Pearce) turns up and sends Liz into an in­ex­pli­ca­ble panic. We soon learn the depths of the cler­gy­man’s de­prav­ity.

The script slowly (very slowly) lays out the past his­tory be­tween the young wo­man and the holy ma­niac. We jour­ney back to a rough-hewn min­ing town ar­ranged around a busy brothel. We learn ter­ri­ble truths about Liz’s child­hood.

Brim­stone is not short of tow­er­ing per­for­mances or big themes. The re­lent­less cru­elty to women clar­i­fies the pic­ture’s fem­i­nist per­spec­tive. A char­ac­ter actor in a mati­nee idol’s shell, Pearce rel­ishes the op­por­tu­nity to rend the air like an Elmer Gantry in league with the DUP. The film must be close to unique among west­erns in re­tain­ing its Dutch­ness through­out: watch how Amer­ica learnt to but­ton up within the Protes­tant tra­di­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, Brim­stone is dan­ger­ously lack­ing in light and shade. It’s all cloudy grey. Hu­mour is in short sup­ply. There are few nu­ances to Pierce’s char­ac­ter and fewer hints of Liz’s in­ner drive. She is a vic­tim of cir­cum­stance through­out.

One longs to see what Paul Ver­ho­even would have done with such material. Kool­hoven does just enough.

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