From the moment the new reverend climbs the pulpit, Liz knows she and her family are in great danger.
Brimstone is a period western thriller with some possible supernatural elements.
The fact that I call it supernatural is probably up for debate, but I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em. And there are some questionable things which take place, which might strain believability – that is unless you introduce something other-worldly or supernatural. I’ll leave that verdict to my avid readers of 2.
At an extensive 2.5 hours, Brimstone is quite a time commitment. However, as it’s told in segments via five “chapters”, it feels like you’re getting five short films – all centering around the journey of one woman.
It’ll be tough to give a nice synopsis/rundown of the film’s proceedings, without giving away too much, but let’s give it a go.
Midwife Liz (child actor wunderkind Dakota Fanning) lives with her husband Eli (William Houston), pre-teen stepson Matthew (Jack Hollington) and her young daughter Sam (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’s Ivy George) on their rural farm. At church one day, a new Reverend (Guy Pearce) appears, and Liz is immediately, inexplicably on edge. As several unfortunate occurrences begin to plague this little community, Liz insists that their family uproot and leave. The film then takes the audience back into the deep connection between Liz and the Reverend and how the two of them reached this time in their lives.
While some folks may not dig this back and forth in the film’s timeline, I simply adored this twisty-turny structure. Each chapter is named for either a book in the Bible or a more general Biblical term (i.e. “retribution”, “Genesis”). And the film’s back and forth, allows for some true anticipation and suspense – as we know that eventually things will come to a head and a battle will take place. You just know how this is going to end up.
A big complaint about the film is the choice to keep the Reverend sort of enigmatic. With such a long running time, surely there was some time to give Pearce’s character a little more history. But, such a choice then calls into question any potentially supernatural aspects. I don’t think there’s any real win/win here. Give more to the Reverend and lose the mystery. Give him nothing and he becomes a sort of villainous caricature.
And that brings me to Guy Pearce’s performance. I’ve never found him to be the most exquisite of thespians (other than in The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert), but he’s generally good and has a definite presence when on-screen. And while he’s frightening and calculating as the Reverend, some of his acting moments come off as a bit too melodramatic for my taste. Of course, the character is a sermon-spouting man of God, so that sort of works. I don’t know. His work here didn’t impress me – and I feel I have to again point out the lack of enough in the script/story for him to do other than appear menacing and disgusting. I’m gonna go ahead and lay the blame at the feet of writer/director Martin Koolhoven.
The other lead performance comes from Dakota Fanning. While her sister Elle (The Neon Demon) seems to have recently taken the Fanning Dynasty acting spotlight, I’m hoping for a return to high-profile acting work from Dakota. Of course, she’s been working, but with little fanfare. Realizing I would see her in this picture as a mother, I was a bit apprehensive. Little Dakota? A mother? What the what? But she’s the perfect choice as a young mother in the Old West – when considering how early young girls were married in that era. Fanning is mute for much of the performance (Liz has no tongue), which means she has to work extra hard (perhaps not – I’m just assuming) to bring an audience on board. But with age, her big expressive blue eyes have not lost any of their luster or the uncanny ability to show every bit of emotion running through her character’s head/heart. At home riding a horse or shooting a rifle, Fanning brings Liz to life, and it’s certainly a terrific performance worthy of more press and much more high regard. How long will it be before Fanning is back in the big spotlight – reaching toward her first Oscar-gold? With innate acting talent, not long.
The rest of the cast is fantastic. Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones) shows up as a wayward and injured cowboy, taken care of by a young Liz (a terrific performance from Fanning doppelganger Emilia Jones) and as Liz’s husband Eli, William Houston delivers a firm and solid caring father.
But it’s little Ivy George who steals the show. I recall her endearing performance in Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension a couple of years back. The spitting image of Dakota Fanning (perfect casting as her daughter), she shares the glory of Fanning’s big blue eyes. And with some of the nastiness this young actress must pretend to see and experience, it’s simultaneously frightening and awe-inspiring at how she found those terrifying emotional moments.
The gore effects (this is a western after all) are plentiful and extremely well done. Dead sheep, dead horses, throat cuts and the pre-requisite western cornucopia of gunshots and the subsequent bleeding – are quite marvelous. That is unless you focus on the characters and the situations where this blood-letting happens. You care what happens to these folks.
Stunningly shot with the gorgeous backdrops of several European countries (including Germany, Austria, Spain and Hungary) the film is a visual delight. From a desert backdrop to a foggy winter landscape in the film’s final chapter, you’ll never stop marveling at the locations and the cinematography which captures them. This is not a studio film (writer/director Martin Koolhoven was offered that chance, but turned them down in order to have more creative control), but it sure looks like one.
Of visual note – in the final chapter, Liz and her two children are slowly making an escape in a foggy winter blizzard. When the rifle falls from the carriage, young Matthew has to leave the carriage to retrieve it. The shot is a bird’s-eye view and it’s so glorious (two tiny patches of black in a vast sea of white) I remarked aloud, “Oooh, that’s nice.” I was watching the film by myself, by the way.
The period costumes, sets and props find you paying little to no attention to them. Sound like a negative? Well, it’s not. If mistakes or incorrectly done details by the artistic staff stick out, then that’s a big problem. In Brimstone, all of the art direction, hair and costume work is seamless and flawless. And that’s just as it should be.
This isn’t a typical horror film – so you won’t expect ghouls and ghosts. But in the guise of the Reverend, there is evil to be experienced and feared. Beautifully shot, expertly acted (for the most part) and with an intriguing non-linear structure, Brimstone is absolutely worth your bucks and your time.
Brimstone is now available on several VOD outlets.