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On the 19th century frontier, Liz (Dakota Fanning) struggles with her step-family on a small farm on the edge of town. Mute from losing her tongue years before, she communicates with sign language using her young daughter Sam (Ivy George) as her voice. She has come to be respected as a trustworthy midwife, earning the adoration of the townspeople. That is until a woman with a troubling pregnancy has complications and Liz must make a terrible decision, one that leaves the baby dead.
This incurs the wrath of the community, led by the new Reverend (Guy Pearce), a perversely monstrous church leader who makes it a crusade to punish Liz as he rails on the glory of God’s fury. She flees as vengeance strikes with terrible injustice, which seems to set the stage for a story of a woman on the run, and in some ways it does, but not as you might expect.
Cut into four chapters, each tell varying stories of the same theme with the same characters, though at different ages, we meet Liz again and again as she faces off against the Reverend. As a teen, Liz is played by Emilia Jones, who in one story is found in the desert and given refuge in the company of prostitutes at a saloon run by a dangerous man, soon taking up the trade herself. She grows and (again now as Fanning) witnesses atrocities against the women, including one whose tongue is sliced out for punishment for a miner infraction. In another chapter, back as a teen, she struggles with maturation as the Reverend is now her father, who barely conceals his lustful attraction for his daughter, beating his wife Anna (Carice van Houten) who does what she can to protect her. In each of these chapters, Liz sees the worst as she lives in a revolving world of damage and suffering at the hands of man.
Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven, Brimstone is a relentless journey, one pocked by scenes of unbearable cruelty on women and girls, perhaps in the name of a message in their defense but more honestly exploitive in practice. From rape and sexual abuse, pedophilia to whippings, hangings, slapping and torture, what follows is a disturbing tale that pits Liz in two stages of life against the Reverend, a character so repellent in every moment of the film, he is but a prop with no depth, an aggressively ghastly villain consumed by his position over Liz. Koolhoven is nearly obsessed with this simple but distressing dynamic, dragging it on and on, and while he paints some pretty pictures in the landscapes where these people live, the broken narrative and incessant lean on pain and suffering make this more than uncomfortable.
That’s not to say the leads don’t compel. Fanning is quite engaging, her lovely face and deeply set eyes weigh heavy as the story progresses, the tragedies of her life tainting her melancholy stare. While mute for most of the film, she is full of story, her hands and body moving with great conviction. Early scenes are best, and she takes to the pioneer lifestyle with powerful authenticity. Yet it is young Jones who comes off most memorable, enduring arguably the worst of the abuse. A gifted young actress, she carries the film.
At two and a half hours, there is hope a movie of this length and breadth would have a more meaningful impact, and indeed there are moments that ring, though perhaps not as the filmmaker intends. Things said and suggested to a 6-year-old girl on screen by an adult man are positively repulsive, and even if they are intended to be so, it doesn’t help to further any agenda in the story. Bent on preserving the shell of its premise rather giving weight to its meaning, Brimstone is a hard watch, even for the sake of the story. Certainly, there have been characters and films with similar themes, but there is a decided unease to what Koolhoven offers here, one that feels unearned and unnecessary. Perhaps that’s the point, but sitting through this epically long and brutal experience never makes it seem right.
Movie description: Brimstone is a 2017 dramatic thriller about a woman who faces horrific challenges and sacrifice in her life under the constant wrath of a malevolent father figure.
Director(s): Martin Koolhoven
Actor(s): Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Kit Harington
Genre: Drama, Thriller