It took Martin Koolhoven seven years to make Brimstone, a Dutch western (with support from The Netherlands, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, UK and USA), shot in Europe with English speaking actors. However, if the film undoubtedly belongs to the genre, the European elements the Director brought clearly make it a twisted mutant work.
The film focusses on Liz (Dakota Fanning, War of the Worlds) a young woman who is being hunted by a vengeful Preacher (Guy Pearce, Memento). But Liz is a genuine survivor; she’s no victim but instead a woman of fearsome strength who responds with astonishing bravery to claim the better life she and her daughter deserve.
Brimstone opens on bullets spurting beneath the surface of a lake bathed in sunshine while a feminine voice tells us that we are going to witness the story of the life of a strong woman, a warrior. However, when we discover Liz, a mute and silent thirty-year-old, who has become the midwife of a small community of settlers, it is not easy to discern the fighter behind this young woman. However, we will quickly get to witness this side of her… This conflicting duality is one of the key elements of the film and, from the onset, with its immoderate taste for ultra-violence, stylised cruelty and mutilations of all kinds, Brimstone clearly appears as a divisive film.
The structure of the film also fascinates as much as it complicates Liz’s story; Koolhoven proposes a chronologically inverted initiatory quest and, in doing so, he invites the audience to dive into the darkness of the human mind. This approach ultimately seems more in line with the Horror movie genre than with traditional western elements, similarly to what Antonia Bird did with her magnificently twisted Ravenous nearly 20 years ago, or more recently S. Craig Zahler with his incredible Bone Tomahawk. However, one of the main references seems to be Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter and the numerous references to this timeless masterpiece also illuminate, relatively speaking, the quasi-fantastic dimension of Liz’s epic journey, its propensity to summon the territory of the nightmares, far more than the fantasy of the new Eden frontier usually associated with the Western genre.
Furthermore, while sometimes quite desperate, the film never forgets to propose a powerful entertainment and Koolhoven fully exploits the codes of the genre to maximise the iconographic power of his shots. The director also composes pictures with limited movements, but where the slightest gesture can be considered as a threat, creating a permanent tension. A tension that strikes the audience as much during the explosions of violence than during the regular confrontations between its anti-heroes also comes from the two main actors of the film. Fanning like Pearce are simultaneously overacting and minimalists, inhabited and complex and their performances are all the more remarkable because they never take precedence over the characters they embody.
Similarly to its climax mixing infernal flames and pristine purgatory, Brimstone abruptly shakes audience, places, times and tones, to narrate a myth in the form of a powerful epitaph.