Overview: Hounded by an evil preacher, mute midwife Liz struggles to keep her family safe in the wilds of the Old West. Momentum Pictures; 2016; Not Rated; 148 minutes.
A Word of Warning: Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in some time. In tone, content, and worldview, it is punishingly, inexhaustibly bleak. Here is a film where innocent men, women, and children are murdered in cold blood; where abused wives are driven to public suicide; where young women are sold into sex slavery by strangers; where little girls are whipped to a bloody pulp by madmen as their tied up mothers look on in horror. Early in the film Liz (Dakota Fanning), a mute midwife living in some forsaken corner of the American Wilderness with her husband and two children, performs an emergency birthing in a church after the mother goes into labor after Sunday services. She comes to a grim conclusion: the baby’s head is too big. They can save the mother, or they can save the baby. Electing the mother, Liz crushes the baby’s head with forceps. Grief-stricken, the father of the dead child shoots up Liz’s house that night, demanding she be executed for murder. The next morning Liz wakes to find that her sheep have been slaughtered. And all of this happens within the first 10-20 minutes. And it never eases up, never gets more palatable.
Calvinist Exploitation: It’s easy to be bleak, easy to be misanthropic. Many filmmakers do so by reveling in mankind’s worst impulses—Lars von Trier has made a career exploring the depths of man’s capacity for cruelty towards their fellow man. But in many cases there’s little method behind the nihilism, no reasoning other than a bankrupt certainty of life’s meaninglessness. These shallow tendencies lead naturally to exploitation; indeed, for much of the 70s and 80s the nastiest, cruelest, and most hateful films were the ones made explicitly to titillate and shock. Grindhouse classics like Don Edmonds’ Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975), Joel M. Reed’s Bloodsucking Freaks (1976), and Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) achieved success largely by making philosophic misanthropy explicitly pornographic.
But there’s a deliberate method to Koolhoven’s madness: Calvinism, that harsh and austere branch of Christianity that took root in his native Netherlands and later immigrated to the United States. It was this Calvinism, with its furious obsession with sin, Satan, and damnation, that influenced early American society. But what seems to haunt Koolhoven the most was the Calvinist teaching of Predestination, the belief that God has ordained certain people to be saved regardless of their actions. Of course, if God has chosen certain people to be saved, that must mean that damnation is all but inevitable for everyone else. It’s this inescapable sense of destiny that haunts Brimstone as it charts Liz’s life fleeing from The Reverend (Guy Pearce), a cruel man who uses the cloth of ministry to hide, absolve, and occasionally justify his wickedness. Liz was born into sin by no choice of her own, and every well-meaning attempt to escape it and survive only compounds her supposed wickedness. There can be no escape; retribution can only be delayed.
Overall: It’s difficult to go too into detail about Brimstone’s plot. Koolhoven utilizes a Tarantino-esque non-linear structure, dividing the film into four chapters shown out of chronological order. You can’t discuss much about the plot, even what happens in the first hour, without giving away the story as a whole. I’ve already pushed things a bit too far by recounting the story of Liz’s midwifing. So I find myself left with tertiary observations. For one, the acting is phenomenal—Pearce is so chilling as a corrupt preacher that he could make the Reverend Harry Powell’s blood run cold. For another, Koolhoven’s screenplay has all the thematic density of a novel. But is it something I would recommend watching? Brimstone has much to say about faith, sin, and society’s unfair treatment of women. But at what cost? I’m of the belief that movies should never be punishment—they can delight, terrify, provoke, and even depress. But they should never make one hate life or oneself. If you can handle the films of the aforementioned von Trier, you can probably make it through Brimstone and find it a rewarding sit. But for everyone else: approach with extreme caution.
Featured Image: Momentum Pictures