If anyone didn’t already know how hard it was to be a woman on the American frontier, Dutch director Martin Koolhoven bludgeons the point home in the often gruelingly effective, if ultimately overdone, “Brimstone.”
A grim mash-up of the Western, the supernatural and boiler-plate feminism, “Brimstone” — the director’s first English-language film — is enlivened by strong performances, especially from Guy Pearce as the embodiment of repressive evil.
Dakota Fanning is Liz, a midwife and housewife toiling away on a farm with a loving husband, Eli (William Houston), and young daughter (Ivy George), though Eli’s son from a previous marriage, Matthew (Jack Hollington), doesn’t seem to care for her much. Though she can hear, she doesn’t speak and uses sign language to communicate.
Her life seems to be one of a simple though hard-working routine until the new preacher, simply called The Reverend (Pearce), comes to town with his scarred face and stark visions of hell, wrath and punishment. On the day of his first sermon, a pregnant woman in the congregation goes into labor and it’s a difficult childbirth. Something with the baby seems not quite right and Liz has to make the decision to save the life of the mother or the child.
Her choice turns the town — and The Reverend — against her, though she has other reasons to fear this man of the cloth, which are revealed in lengthy flashbacks. Liz is in a war with The Reverend, one that might consume her body and soul.
Fanning is in fine form as a woman who can’t vocalize her emotions, though it’s Pearce here who steals the show. Pearce doesn’t usually play someone so deeply and unforgivably malevolent, but he pulls it off with frightening aplomb.
Still, that’s not quite enough to justify the film’s 2 1/2-hour running time. And, the level of violence — much of it, though certainly not all of it, against women, including a young girl — is disturbing.
No doubt Koolhoven would say that is the point, but the blurred line between enlightenment and exploitation can be hard to find beneath the blows and the whippings.
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