BRIMSTONE

OUT 29 SEPTEM­BER CERT 18 / 148 MINS

Empire (UK) - - ON.SCREEN - JONATHAN PILE

DI­REC­TOR Martin Kool­hoven CAST Dakota Fan­ning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice Van Houten, Kit Har­ing­ton

PLOT A pri­est (Pearce) shows up in a fron­tier town to the in­tense dis­tress of one of its in­hab­i­tants, a mute mid­wife (Fan­ning) liv­ing there with her fam­ily. She knows him, and is ter­ri­fied, and he soon demon­strates why. What’s in their shared past that leads to this vi­o­lence?

THE HER­ITAGE OF Westerns in Dutch cinema is short and un­re­mark­able. So short, in fact, that Brimstone is the first notable West­ern to come out of the Nether­lands. But with its bleak out­look and scenes of graphic vi­o­lence, it’s one hell of a start.

Writer-di­rec­tor Martin Kool­hoven has crafted a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal ver­sion of the Old West where the pa­tri­archy rules. He wants to see his char­ac­ters suf­fer, then ob­serve how they re­act. It’s a film about the evil men do, and the women who suf­fer be­cause of it. Not that these women are por­trayed as help­less vic­tims, but they do live in a world where they’re deemed se­cond-class cit­i­zens, and the men will vi­o­lently en­force their author­ity if it’s chal­lenged. When it’s chal­lenged.

At the cen­tre of this is Dakota Fan­ning’s Liz who, when we meet her, is a mute mid­wife liv­ing with her hus­band Eli (Wil­liam Hous­ton), step­son (Jack Holling­ton) and daugh­ter (Vera Vi­tali). There’s lit­tle else given in the way of char­ac­ter in­for­ma­tion — and that’s the point. Told in four parts ti­tled, in turn, ‘Rev­e­la­tion’, ‘Ex­o­dus’, ‘Ge­n­e­sis’ and ‘Ret­ri­bu­tion’ (can you sense there are bib­li­cal themes in play here?), the first three run in Me­mento-lite re­verse chrono­log­i­cal or­der, grad­u­ally re­veal­ing more char­ac­ter de­tail, be­fore the snow­bound fi­nal chap­ter sees us leap for­ward to a bru­tal fi­nale. And Fan­ning is re­mark­able — wide-eyed and word­less for two thirds of the time she’s on screen, ev­ery emo­tion is por­trayed on her face, ev­ery nu­ance con­veyed in a silent glance.

The first chap­ter sees Liz on the de­fen­sive. A new preacher (Pearce) comes to town, and she’s in­stantly afraid of him — hid­ing, hoping he doesn’t see her. But it’s her he’s there for. “Do you know why I’m here?” he asks her when they fi­nally meet. “I’m here to pun­ish you.” And pun­ish her he does — turn­ing towns­folk against her and threat­en­ing her fam­ily be­fore even­tu­ally turn­ing mur­der­ous.

There’s an end­ing to this chap­ter, but it’s some­thing of a cliffhanger. And be­fore it’s re­solved, we jump back to two ear­lier moments in her life. First to a story set in the brothel of a min­ing town, and then to a fam­ily farm where the true na­ture of Liz’s re­la­tion­ship with the preacher is made ex­plicit. Only then, with the back­story re­vealed, do we get to see how it fi­nally plays out.

The struc­ture is a mas­ter­stroke, each part feel­ing dis­tinct de­spite the bleak tone that per­me­ates the film, and it keeps in­ter­est lev­els high across the two-and-a-half-hour run­ning time. But Kool­hoven also uses it to play on view­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions about his char­ac­ters. For ex­am­ple, when we meet Liz again in the se­cond chap­ter she’s not yet mute, so we know what’s in store for her. The el­e­ment of sur­prise is lost, but here that’s off­set by the dra­matic weight added to the how and why. And when the vi­o­lence even­tu­ally comes, it’s white-knuckle tense, not play­ing out as you’d imag­ine.

If it strains cred­i­bil­ity at times — Guy Pearce’s preacher com­ing off as a 19th-cen­tury Ja­son Voorhees in his abil­ity to re­turn from ap­par­ent death — it’s still a grip­ping tale de­spite its stately pace. The great­est Dutch West­ern ever? It’s hard to ar­gue against it. VERDICT Bru­tal in its de­pic­tions of vi­o­lence, Brimstone is tough to watch at times, but never less than grip­ping, even as the clock creeps up to the 150-minute mark.

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