Venice Film Festival: Brimstone

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Brimstone
Directed by Martin Koolhoven
Starring Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice Van Houten and Kit Harington
In UK Cinemas September 29th, 2017
Watch on iTunes (US)

by Jenny Donoghue

If you like gore and enjoy a good two hours of the repeated and horrific oppression of helpless innocent women, Brimstone is certainly the film for you. Graphic from beginning to end, Dutch writer and director Martin Koolhoven’s Western thriller follows Frontier woman Liz, as she struggles against the misfortunes of being a woman among settlers in the New World (and any time, in the wrong circumstances, really) and the twists her life takes as she tries to escape her obsessed pursuer, an almost comically evil Reverend father, played by Guy Pearce.

Liz is played by Dakota Fanning and, for a surprisingly large portion of the film, by Emilia Jones as young Liz, with her original name of Joanna. While Emilia gives a good performance, Dakota looks potentially young enough and the young character is in such a large portion of the film, that it seems a strange choice not to have Liz played by just the one actress throughout.

The story is told in four chapters, beginning in reverse order, and coming back to the present for the last chapter. The violent and graphic images are plentiful, often to the point of exploitative, whether the gore of Liz’s husband left to die with his intestines around his neck until he begs her to shoot him or the disciplinary gore of her mother gagged with an iron muzzle (which has a disturbingly sexual undercurrent) swinging from the church bell rope as she hangs herself, or Liz strapped to a pole while she watches her father prepare to rape her daughter, dislocating her shoulder to stop him. It’s so graphic and oddly cold and impersonal that it begins to become almost comical, almost pornographic. While there is something to be praised in how striking the images are, it does beg the question – is it necessary and if so, why? Unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to have any great or inspiring reason for making us suffer through all of this and it does begin to feel a little like the director’s twisted fantasy.

Dakota Fanning’s performance is strong and compelling, with breath bating tension and emotion, and always enigmatic even in silence. Her relationship with the lesbian lover whose name and fiancé she takes is a little unconvincing, though perhaps it’s a choice that Liz herself is in the relationship only circumstantially rather than wholeheartedly. Emilia also does a striking job as Joanna and Vera Vitali has a too brief shining moment as Sally the whore who tries to save Joanna and ends up hanged for her troubles.

Religious imagery and themes are strong throughout and many characters are almost comically exaggerated portrayals of good and evil, including Kit Harrington’s saviour Samuel who shows up late in the film, brothel owner Frank with his hand on the back of Joanna’s neck and his words eerily mirroring her Devilish father, and of course The Reverend himself, the evil father who just won’t die no matter how many times it seems Liz has killed him. He comes back from apparent death so many times by the end you almost expect him to come crawling back through the window in flames with his head hanging off.

There are some visually stunning wide shots, especially wilderness panoramas in both heat and snow, and the era is evoked atmospherically, the Dutch settlers (perhaps a nod to the director’s origins) fascinatingly straight-laced, a culture cocooned within itself and isolated in the wilderness of the New World, and the saloon and Frontier town lively. The chapters open with stunning panoramic shots as overtures. The soundtrack is powerful and effective.

While well made with some beautiful striking shots, good acting and a very powerful soundtrack, it is almost pornographically indulgent with the horror, gore, oppression and violence both sexual and physical. You can’t help but wonder how this story would be told by a female writer/director, and what the film is trying to say about the still current issue of the oppression, disenfranchisement and misfortune of women, particularly in some places in the world where conditions aren’t yet so different from Frontier times. It’s hard to decipher any kind of intent in telling this particular story at this moment and in such a horrendously graphic way, which does lead the film to feel indulgently gratuitous, almost a feat to be endured as a female audience member.

Though Liz is billed as a hero, her actions are rarely heroic. Her daughter reflecting at the end says her mother was brave, but most of the film’s events involve her being saved by another woman who sacrifices herself for her, be it her mother, Sally, or her lover. The men she becomes close to are also killed – her young crush Samuel, her husband and her adoptive son  – and she’s not only unable to save any of them, she doesn’t even try to until it comes to her own daughter, a reflection of her mother’s actions earlier in the film. It seems she often survives because of her inaction. In fact she’s so dangerous to associate with when a new person comes into contact with her it’s a challenge not to shout, “Run! Run away before you get killed! Save yourself!”

It could be argued that running away from her father’s forced marriage was brave, though it seems to come more from teenage rebellion than a particularly brave temperament, especially in light of her crush on Samuel and that she makes no apparent attempt to resist life at the whorehouse until she absolutely has to. So what positions itself as a triumphant female led hero movie, actually plays as a young girl forced to endure a series of unfortunate circumstances due to her lot in life, surviving through them as best she can, often at the expense of others whom she’s powerless to help and takes no action to try helping. She even mirrors the mother she found so incomprehensibly weak as a young girl in the end, taking her own life rather than facing what she believes to be impossible. You can’t help feeling depressed and a little violated by the end.

A technically very well made film that unfortunately leaves a too gruesome taste in the mouth. If you want to be very disturbed, or just want a graphic reminder of how horribly hard life can be for disenfranchised women, this is the film for you.

 

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