Ultra-violent, ensemble western is sordid and overly bleak

Aurelien Noblet on Martin Koolhoven’s ‘Brimstone’ (2016)

Once upon a time in the West, there was a little girl named Joanna (Emilia Jones), who lived with her mother, Anna (Carice Van Houten), and her stepfather, the mean Reverend (Guy Pearce). The Reverend is a sadistic man who uses religion to justify his grotesque behaviour towards his wife and her child. After years of physical and psychological suffering, Joanna is forced to escape her home and subsequently be sold to a saloon.

Years later, Joanna (Dakota Fanning) is a grown woman who works as a prostitute until one day, a mysterious man from her past reappears, which unleashes a series of disastrous events that leaves her no other choice but to take on the identity of another woman. Unfortunately, the Reverend is led by blind faith and has other plans for her; running away is no longer an option. To survive, Joanna must confront him for good.

The first thing to say about Brimstone is that it is not an easy film to watch, certainly not an easygoing, hangover type of film. Although it is an ambitiously crafted piece of filmmaking and a notable addition to the Western genre from director Martin Koolhoven, the film is not without its flaws. What had the potential to be a stone cold classic concerning gruesome violence, lawlessness, religion and the oppression of women by men is, instead, an uneven, occasionally challenging, but ultimately unrewarding film.

At first glance, women herein seem to be sexual objects that men can abuse at will. Obviously, the film is set at a time when women’s rights were little to none and a third of the film happens in a saloon – an establishment of lust where men pay to have sexual relations with courtesans. There is nonetheless a sense of solidarity across the female characters in the film; Joanna being their centre of gravity. Her relationship with her friend Elizabeth (the excellent Carla Juri) is a great catalyst for portraying a “we suffer together” sisterhood. Motherly love can also be found between Anna and Joanna as she tries to protect her child from her husband who tries to undermine her innocence. Yet, her wish to protect her never becomes a motive to fight back, despite all the hardships. I would have liked to see these dynamics of female solidarity grow and snatch the narrative. Despite these good intentions in exploring gender relations and occasional break-free moment, the women of Brimstone were too often submissive to men.

Visually speaking, the film is a masterclass in framing and photography. Some sequences are incredibly well directed and often looks stunning, thanks to the cinematography of Rogier Stoffers. Unfortunately, these shots are so elegantly put together with great symmetry and a clever use of the frame that the content becomes submissive to the visual spectacle. What results is a the film loses its emotional spontaneity, trapped within a frame that is too pretty and meticulous for the eruption of violence it attempts to portrays. Such a controlled and bleak mise-en-scene generates a sense of coldness that doesn’t allow the spectators to grasp the roots of its story of violence, we are only scratching the surface.

Some have criticised the film’s running time, running at almost two hours and a half, but length should never be an issue in films as long as it remains justified and entertaining; what matters is how the director choses to tell the story. In this regard, Brimstone’s timeline is slightly unconventional and is organised in 4 distinct chapters, each depicting a turning point in Joanna’s story. What disappoints is the repetitive structure of every parts; they begin quietly and become increasingly threatening, until events reach a climatic violence that forces Joanna to run away. Again.

If you thought that a Ryan Gosling crushing skull and hammering fingers in Drive (2011) was violent, think again. Brimstone is vicious and doesn’t shy away from themes such as rape or incest. But after three chapters following the same narrative structure, we become desensitised in our anticipation of violence, thus ultimately fails to surprise even if a few cutting of tongues will make you cringe. The violence then, becomes a means for keeping us entertained rather than being truly motivated by a character’s outburst which undermine its credibility.

Each chapter of the film is very dense, approximately 45 minutes. Anyone of these segments could have been a stand-alone movie because they attempt to portray a slice of life so big that we ask ourselves “who are these people” and “where is Joanna”. It dragged where it shouldn’t and I suspect the director to have been too ambitious. Sometimes less is more. Koolhoven introduces us to characters that are at times futile. In Chapter 3 for example, we meet Samuel (the Game of Thrones’s heart-throb Kit Harrington) who is rescued and fed by Joanna behind the reverend’s back. Yet, Samuel does not have a purpose nor an impact on the narrative; we spend time with his character but we are not provided with answers. What are his motivations? Where does he come from? What does he seek? Failing to answer these questions resulted in what I call ‘satellite characters’ who are not fusing with the diegesis of the film, lost in a world that is too big for them.

Despite being let down by a repetitive structure, a harsh representation of women and futile characters, the resolution of the film remains powerful and in alignment with the pejorative and sober tone of the film. The bleakness and narrative resolution recalls The Revenant (2015), in which a similar sense of hard-won retribution was achieved. Joanna has endured many torments which gave the final chapter a sense of emergency and spontaneity. The highly anticipated confrontation doesn’t disappoint and its outcome will haunt you for hours after the credit rolled.

Brimstone is available in the UK now.

Aurélien Noblet

By Aurélien Noblet

Aurelien Noblet is a freelance writer and filmmaker based in London. He earned a BA in Film Studies from King's College London.