There are many ways to describe Brimstone, the latest film from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. Not one of them is polite. From the clanging hubris of the title card, where the film is officially billed as Koolhoven’s Brimstone, to the overbearing orchestral score, this thing oozes arrogance. It is the embarrassing work of someone convinced they have something to say but falling flat on their face: Calling it “problematic” seems colossally inadequate.
In the film’s first chapter (of four), “Revelation,” Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a mute woman living with her husband and children on a farm somewhere in the nondescript Old West. One day a new preacher appears at church, known only as The Reverend (Guy Pearce, immediately recognizable from the first shot of his greasy hair). The Reverend, we eventually learn, is her father, although by the time that’s officially revealed it is well beyond obvious. Beneath all the pretensions, this is just a movie about Guy Pearce desperately wanting to fuck his daughter.
These are the only two characters to speak of in Brimstone, a movie that is 148 excruciating minutes long. Neither of them are defined beyond their initial appearances; Liz is fleeing her seemingly omnipotent, Hannibal-esque father, whose twisted religious-sexual hangups mean he has to brutalize her, repeatedly. Rinse and repeat.
The first three chapters, all given Biblical names, of the film take us successively further back in Liz’s life, while the last concludes the story. The rationale for this jumbled timeline is unclear—Koolhoven’s script offers literally no surprises, not in theme nor dialogue nor incident, so maybe his structure was an effort to counteract the stifling deadness of the story.
Pearce’s Reverend is a maniac rapist and religious fanatic whose daughter, Joanne (she takes the name Liz later), escapes his clutches as a teenager. She then is sold into sexual slavery at a brothel called, no joke, “Frank’s Inferno,” where the women are subjected to hyperbolic amounts of abuse. Cartoon misogynist Frank (Paul Anderson), proprietor of Frank’s Inferno, doesn’t give a shit how his women are treated as long as the customer pays, a characterization taken to absurd extremes, as when a woman is summarily hanged for defending herself from life-threatening violence.
I’ve not seen anything else by Koolhoven, but judging by Brimstone he may fancy himself a Lars Von Trier-style provocateur. And in its broadest strokes—i.e. “woman is put through hell”—Brimstone is in the lineage of Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark or Dogville. It resembles all sorts of better things, in fact: the early-America claustrophobia of Robert Eggers’ The Witch, or the snowbound brutality of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. But Koolhoven categorically lacks the technical chops as a writer and director to balance a premise this tricky. It’s not enough for the film to suggest violence against women; we have to see it, again and again and again. This has a numbing effect. It ceases to mean anything, which is not ideal for a movie with violence against women as its primary concern.
Brimstone is a “feminist” movie in the worst way possible: It dumps humilation and abuse and violence on every woman within sight, yet insists, through insanely stilted monologues, that it’s actually a movie about how women are brutalized unfairly in the name of religion and stuff. It makes Mad Max: Fury Road’s “We are not things” look like a revolutionary slogan of empowerment as opposed to, like, common sense.
Here’s a clear-cut formal example of Koolhoven’s prurient approach to the material: Joanne watches through a rainy window as her father whips her mother. The camera is with her all the way, staying outside the barn as she wipes the rain away to get a better look. Then it cuts into the barn and we watch in shot/reverse shot as the Reverend whips his wife. The scene is suddenly not about Joanne, and not about her mother. It’s about showing the audience, in full detail, a woman being whipped.
Brimstone has all the simplistic Freudian psychology of a Dario Argento movie and none of the fun. The relationship between the Reverend and Joanne, with the Reverend sublimating his hatred of Joanne’s mother and women in general into brutal sexual violence, is essentially the plot of Argento’s Opera or Tenebre. That said: Argento, for his part, never pretended to be unveiling a grand epic about the moral rot at the core of religious America.
It’s probably unfair to lambast the actors for their role in this joyless perversion of a Ken Russell movie, but what the hell: Guy Pearce is abysmal. I’m assuming he was cast for his little “grim drifter” cottage industry (see: The Road, The Proposition, The Rover), but he talks more in Brimstone than in all those combined. To be fair: I don’t know if anyone could deliver his endless religious prattle without coming off terribly, not under Koolhoven’s direction.
Dakota Fanning is barely present as Joanna/Liz, a hollow receptacle for abuse. Despite the script treating her like an unbending triumph of a woman, she has nothing beyond what men to do her. Carice van Houten and Kit Harington (both from Game of Thrones) are similar nonentities. Van Houten is beaten, then commits suicide, and Harington crumbles under an American accent. The appearance of Carla Juri, from David Wnendt’s ebullient Wetlands, brings a brief flicker of life to her scenes, but she’s quickly murdered.
A man strangled with his own intestines; pigs eating corpses; sweaty self-flagellation; a woman hanged during a church service; tongue mutilation; headshots; slit throats; spilled brain matter; catastrophic sexual dysfunction—-a movie with all of these things has no business being so fucking dull. Which is really the meat of the problem: Koolhoven and journeyman DP Rogier Stoffers (uh…School of Rock?) shoot this ultraviolent, lurid, tasteless movie like they’re lobbying for Stephen Daldry’s job churning out middlebrow Oscar bait. It knows it’s disgusting and it can’t own up to it. Instead it dresses its sadism in would-be gravitas—all portentous Junkie XL string score and rococo dialogue and thudding symbolism. You don’t often get to suggest a Lucio Fulci movie as a less offensive alternative, yet here we are.
That Joanne gets her revenge on the Reverend is no salve for the pointless, endless wallowing of the rest of the film. It’s an easy escape hatch: You can do whatever you want to women in your movie as long as the bad guy gets kicked in the dick or something. But rape-revenge movies like I Spit on Your Grave and Ms. 45 understand what they’re putting on-screen—they show enough to disgust the audience without diminishing (or exploiting) the horror of what’s happening. As an experiment in systematic desensitization, Brimstone—excuse me, Koolhoven’s Brimstone—is massively successful. As cinema, it’s complete garbage.
Director: Martin Koolhoven
Writer: Martin Koolhoven
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Kit Harington, Carice van Houten,
Release Date: March 10, 2017
Zach Budgor writes about movies and videogames on the internet. Follow him on Twitter.