One of cinema’s greatest characters, let alone villains, is Robert Mitchum’s insidious preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter. With ‘love’ and ‘hate’ emblazoned on his knuckles, Powell stalks the Southern Gothic landscape with sinister desires and an ominous aura of dread. Mitchum’s performance is one not easily forgotten or trumped. That was until Dutch director Martin Koolhoven summoned something even darker and more despicable from the fires of hell in Brimstone: Guy Pearce’s Reverend.
He’s a brutal, totally unforgiving and religious zealot who, perhaps most terrifyingly, believes his own religious rhetoric. Dressed head to toe in pitch black and framed to appear eight feet tall with the apparent wing span of a Condor, he preaches with no sense of irony: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing…” He makes Harry Powell look like Father Ted. The fact he’s only ever referred to as “the Reverend” only emphasises that no name capable of defining or containing his evil.
As Pearce delivers the most compelling performance of the year, the Reverend epitomises Koolhoven’s uncompromising, relentless and at times terrifying depiction of life on the frontier of America. Brimstone is ostensibly a classic revenge Western, but there’s so much wildly refreshing and challenging about its vision of American cinema’s oldest stomping ground. The film explores the often appalling reality of surviving, not so much living, as a woman in nascent America. The Dutch director utilises his outsider perspective to debunk both the myths of American progress and the skewed romance of the traditional Western.
The film opens on Liz Brundy (Dakota Fanning), a curiously mute frontier midwife, going about her daily routine with her daughter Sam (Ivy George): feeding the cattle, doing the laundry and visiting the local newborns. This simple lifestyle comes crashing down in a wave of silent terror when Liz spies the new reverend (Pearce) heading the sermon at the local church. Without so much as a yelp, Liz’s eyes hollow out and she trembles with fear as he stalks the tiny church. We immediately know the Reverend, a ringer for Abraham Lincoln’s evil twin, is bad news, but his more personal history with Liz remains a mystery. The beauty of Koolhoven’s narrative is how he divides the film into chapters — Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution — as he rewardingly works back to Liz and the Reverend’s troubled beginnings.
There’s a sense of scope, both geographically and narratively, that gives Brimstone an epic sensibility harkening to some of the genre’s greatest entries (think The Searchers and Once Upon a Time in the West). The film travels across great rural planes, snow covered mountains that recall The Revenant and classic dusty desert towns (complete with debauched saloon). We see Liz grow from youthful innocence, quite literally as Emilia Jones superbly stands in as the young Liz, to a hardened woman of the world. While the film offers a full account of Liz’s life, it soon takes on a greater responsibility by recalling the feminist battle to escape the shackles of oppression amid testosterone-fuelled lawlessness of the frontier.
Liz’s story is one of innocence and morality. We see her quite literally lose her childish status with the coming of her period. The moment plunges her headlong into a world of sexual objection, flagellation, censorship and murder, all depicted with a brutal honesty that feels necessary rather than gratuitous. After seeing her mother humiliatingly muzzled with a scold’s bridle, Liz takes it upon herself to escape such a similar fate — but of course history can’t be escaped quite so easily.
Parallels between Liz and her mother slowly creep into focus with a grim inevitability, but with the presence of her daughter, Sam, we feel hope for the future. From the moment Liz scolds her husband (William Houston) for teaching their son how to shoot we see her desire to avoid her own history with violence. With the Reverend on one side and Liz on the other, the uncorrupted Sam becomes the focal point of the film’s struggle between good and evil, progress and stagnation, redemption and damnation. It’s these raised stakes that make the Reverend’s pursuit so significant and hair-raising.
Koolhoven’s greatest statement of intent with Brimstone comes courtesy of some satirical Western myth busting. During a high street duel between an upstanding citizen and the vile saloon owner, Frank (Paul Anderson), we see the latter seemingly dispatch of his foe with a quick draw. Yet with a simple cut to a window above we see the sheriff withdraw into the shadows with his rifle after firing the fatal shot. In that simple moment, which only Liz appears to see, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’s quote “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend” is dispelled with aplomb. There are no heroes in Koolhoven’s Western ideal.
Brimstone has some clear influences, none more overt or explicit than The Night of the Hunter , but its take on the Western is fresh, thrilling and vital. There have been occasional Western detours into the feminist experience via Johnny Guitar, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and more recently from director Kelly Reichardt, but Brimstone presents its case in an epic, sprawling fashion that bravely refuses to romance the old myths etched by John Wayne’s bow legged shadow. Brimstone is as about as far from Stagecoach as the wagon goes.
Verdict: Movie Win
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2016 London Film Festival.