The Old West has never seemed bloodier, grimmer, more Godless or lawless than the version rendered by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven.
The director of the pictorially striking and tense World War II in the Occupied Countries drama “Winter in Wartime” brings a picture postcard eye to the landscapes, homesteads and rustic towns of “Brimstone.”
But this grimly unpleasant two and a half hour endurance contest is an almost unwatchable, frustrating smorgasbord of blood, guts and gore. Eviscerations and head-shots, summary hangings, gooey childbirth and sickening self-surgery land in almost every scene of this fable.
He tells the story out of order to further muddy/bloody the waters of comprehension. The last thing this stupidly overlong saga needs to be doing is demanding our concentration.
“Brimstone” is the story of a mute farmwife, Liz (Dakota Fanning) raising her little girl, caring for a resentful stepson and married to a much older man ( William Houston).
It’s a tough life, but Liz endures it with an admirable stoicism until a new Dutch pastor shows up in town. The Reverend freaks her out. And since he’s played by Guy Pearce garbed in black, facial scars and hellfire sermonizing, we get it.
But they have history. When he hisses, “I’m here to PUNISH you,” she believes it, even if her husband doesn’t. As that husband is gruesomely murdered and she grabs the children to make her getaway, we start to understand.
A flashback takes us to the rescue of an abandoned girl, Joanna (Emilia Jones), tattered and wandering the wastelands. Chinese immigrants sell her into a life of prostitution lorded over by the pitiless pimp Frank in his Inferno Bar.
We piece together the story that connects the film’s opening to that pre-history through chapters Koolhoven titles “Revelation,” “Exodus,” and the like. We glimpse The Preacher’s early years out west, with Carice Van Houten (“Black Book”) as his abused wife.
We see sheep gutted “as punishment,” a man disemboweled, murderous highwaymen shooting and hanging one another and prostitutes beaten, abused and hung when they dare to fight back against the assorted depraved cowpokes who frequent Frank’s establishment.
Pearce takes to the omnipresent crack-shot preacher/tormentor with his usual relish. But there’s no pleasure in this monster, or in the fight against him. Fanning doesn’t give us anything more than her usual inadequate reactions to every situation, the curse of her adult acting career. Carla Juri and Vera Vitali, playing hookers, make stronger impressions.
There’s a grim illogic to it all, as if Koolhaven got all his research from “Worst Crimes of the Old West” books. Even though I can buy that in this world, cruelty comes easily and is every man’s default mode, characters act against their self-interest and the relentless, remorseless savagery makes the viewer ache for a justice that never comes, “Retribution” that one chapter in this morbid tale promises but refuses to deliver.
MPAA Rating: R for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Guy Lucas, Carice van Houten, Kit Harrington
Credits:Written and directed by Martin Koolhaven . An eOne/Monument release.
Running time: 2:28