Brimstone: Visually Beautiful, But Brutally Violent

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DID YOU KNOW? Brimstone is another word for sulfur. The word is usually associated with a sign of God’s wrath, judgment and eternal damnation based on Biblical verses like:

The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth. Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. Psalm 11:5-6, KJV

With that in mind, one can begin to understand the direction Dutch writer and director, Martin Koolhoven, wanted to go in when he made Brimstone. In this film, righteous Liz (Dakota Fanning) faces trials again and again when a self-proclaimed man of God known as “The Reverend” (Guy Pearce) condemns her as a wicked woman, and summons his own snares, fire, and brimstone upon her head.

I was impressed by this Western-Horror hybrid. Not only was it visually stunning, but also had feminist undertones that made me consider life for women during frontier-times and life for women today. It reminded me of a 17th century captivity narrative that often depicted a faith-filled woman in a helpless and trapped position. I think it might have been the “Chapters” that put me in a literary mindset but I can definitely see this as a novel I would enjoy reading.

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Keep in mind, when you’re reading you can easily skip grotesque and graphic scenes, or make them as little disturbing in your head as you want…but when you’re watching Brimstone there is no escape from the intense images of rape, murder, and domestic abuse. I’m surprised a rating above “R” wasn’t created just to categorize Brimstone. There were also so many expletives in this film I thought I was watching Game of Thrones– <<insert quirky connection to Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) and Carice van Houten (The Red Woman) both starring in film.>>

Anyway….

What Worked

Lighting

The lighting was the first thing that caught my attention. As I mentioned during the live-tweet at the top of this post, I thought the church setting towards the beginning of the film was lit beautifully.

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This lighting artistry can be seen throughout the whole film while using different techniques like fire and snow as reflectors. The way the shadows play on the screen from beginning to end definitely helps set the foreboding mood.

Acting

When someone first suggested this movie and said Dakota Fanning was the lead actress, I admit I was hesitant about watching it…but I’m glad I did. Fanning’s performance really showed me how much she’s matured since the last time I watched her act– I think it was War of the Worlds. Physically, she’s grown into a beautiful woman, and I believe her acting skills have grown with her. Even when her character is unable to speak, her expressions speak for themselves and really pull at your heart. By the end, I was completely sympathetic for the character…not because of the abuse she endured, but because of Fanning’s believable portrayal of a survivor.

I also found Guy Pearce’s performance as the evil preacher as memorable. I feel like he is conscious of every part of his body and can summon even the smallest of extremities to perform for him. Just thinking of him lightly touching the back of Fanning’s neck gives me goosebumps.

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Non-Linear Storytelling

Sometimes non-chronological story structures drive me crazy (see last week’s film review of Mr. Nobody if you don’t believe me), but this film made a perfect example of how to do it right. I rather enjoyed the roller coaster storyline that had unexpected up’s-and-down’s, and ultimately brought me back to the beginning. It kept me interested and continually thinking back to the previous “chapter” as my mind tried to put the pieces together.

Theme

Even early in the movie, I feel like I knew the writer/director had a lot to say about women’s rights. The first voice we hear is a woman, calling another woman a “warrior.” The first face we see on the screen is the female, main character who cannot speak. The film is filled with images of women enduring great pain and suffering- childbirth, rape, child abuse, domestic abuse, prostitution, being forced into marriage, having ones’ tongue cut off for being defiant. This movie is gross with its depictions of violence against women, but so was the actual treatment of women in that time, which still continues to this day.

What didn’t work

Excessive violence

I like what Manohla Dargis said in her New York Times article,  “In ‘Brimstone,’ the B Is for Bleak, Brutal and Bloody”:

“In one scene, a fetal hand juts out of the womb; in another, a man is gutted and his entrails are draped over his still-breathing body. It’s a hard, ugly world, or so the Dutch writer and director Martin Koolhaven keeps insisting for 149 grueling minutes.”

The fetal hand Dargis mentioned happened within the first twelve minutes of the film and it only got bloodier after that. This film is not for the squeamish. Although violence isn’t a huge deterrent for me, I know it can be a huge turn-off for many movie goers. I’m afraid that the excessiveness of Brimstone might be too much for many, and it most likely turned away a lot of people who otherwise might have learned something from the theme. I get it, the world is a violent and nasty place, but there are more subtle ways to display that other than “149 grueling minutes,” as Dargis put it.

Length

Speaking of “149 minutes,” this movie is too long. Though I liked the plot, there are small scenes that could be cut to make the story tighter and faster.

Fun Fact: Director Martin Koolhoven prepared 5 years for this film. He was hospitalized with a panic attack when funding almost fell through at the last minute.

Needless to say, this film was Koolhoven’s baby so I understand why he didn’t cut as much as he should have.

Typical Baddie Figure

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Okay, as much as I enjoyed Pearce’s performance as “The Reverend,” I find the character a bit cliché. I feel like I’ve seen a dozen films now with a religious-head villain who bringseth God’s fury upon individuals or does things that contradict a holy life. I know there’s a lot of mistrust when it comes to religion; maybe Koolhaven wanted to display the misogyny and hypocritical behaviors he sees in the church. To be fair, he does take this overused type and takes it to the next level with extreme after violent extreme, making it something entirely new and disturbing.

Conclusion

Overall, I would recommend most mature people to watch this film. For a frontier-era piece, there’s a lot more action than you would expect. Prepare to feel uncomfortable and be glad I didn’t give away any of the big spoilers that will blow your mind in the worst of ways.

 

 

 

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