Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Koolhoven wants all voyeurism of an exploitation flick while still expecting us to take his artistry seriously, and it's an unholy mix."

Watching Brimstone is, in essence, watching what happens when a Western and a horror film step out of the saloon bar of director Martin Koolhoven's brain after one too many beers and get into a shoot-out that leaves both mortally wounded and strafes any good intentions regarding 'feminism' in the crossfire. Worse still, we realise the director has an unnatural interest in watching the crossfire victim suffer a long and lingering death. There's even a clue in the full international title, Koolhoven's Brimstone - never forget the man is calling the shots.

The Dutch filmmaker's first film in English gets off to a promising start, with an enigmatic set-up sequence giving way to the first of four segments, the portentously named Revelation. In it, we meet mute midwife Liz (Dakota Fanning), who is living the sort of hard-knock life endured by women on the frontier with her husband Eli (William Houston) and young daughter Sam (Ivy George) and stepson Matthew (Jack Hollington).

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But the arrival of a new reverend (Guy Pearce), who immediately reduces Liz to a quivering wreck, brings trouble.

It's at this point that what could have developed into a gritty western built around moral dilemmas starts to descend into excess. Soon, we find ourselves in the next segment, Exodus, the title of which already indicates a step backwards, so that when we see 13-year-old Joanna (Emilia Jones) stagger into view, we can almost immediately guess where the plot is going.

But while we may expect the spectre of incest and brutality to raise their heads, the full throttle way the director decides to employ these devices is dubious to say the least. It's one thing to have a theme about women being beaten - it will come as little surprise that the reverend is into punishment in a big way - but Koolhoven wants all the voyeurism of an exploitation flick while still expecting us to take his artistry seriously, and it's an unholy mix.

He, presumably, intends to create a debate about women being rendered mute by men and religion, but sets about it in the most crass and on-the-nose way - via scold's bridles and tongue removal - never exploring the theme beyond the physical, revelling in the look of the thing, rather than the psychological impact. The involvement of a young child in this full-frontal onslaught remains worryingly unjustified by the intellectual content of the film.

Away from the horror devices, the attempts at a lighter tone also fall flat. Young Joanna is soon sold into a cathouse, its highly unlikely name of Frank's Inferno just another example of Koolhoven jamming in a religious reference anywhere he can. Firstly, they all seem to be mighty happy considering they're beaten on virtually a whim - as though they're all enjoyuing a few hours off from a performance of The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. It's also reasonable to expect the women to show a bit of solidarity with the youngster but during the first encounter, one of them jokes about her drinking semen, as though Koolhoven just can't help but double-down on the yuck factor. By the time we reach the fourth episode, the inevitable Retribution, all dramatic credibility has been beaten (and strangled) from the film.

The cinematography is occasionally beautiful but mannered. Lightning flashes on the reverend's face, just in case Pearce's pew-chewing performance doesn't fully convince us of how evil he is, and every blaze - and there are several - seems to have been choreographed down to the last flicker.

Assuming that Koolhoven's message is intended to be that women should spread the word about unnecessary abuse and patriarchal oppression, I've been happy to oblige.

Reviewed on: 12 Sep 2017
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Revenge tale about a mute midwife in the American West.
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Director: Martin Koolhoven

Writer: Martin Koolhoven, Martin Koolhoven

Starring: Kit Harington, Dakota Fanning, Carice van Houten, Guy Pearce, Paul Anderson, Emilia Jones, Carla Juri, William Houston, Bill Tangradi, Naomi Battrick, Ivy George, Jack Roth, Vera Vitali, Justin Salinger, Frederick Schmidt

Year: 2016

Runtime: 148 minutes

Country: Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, UK

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