Movie Review: Brimstone (Lights, Camera, Action!)

By Thom Compton 01.10.2017

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Brimstone (UK Rating: 18)

Brimstone is a lot of things. Terms like "genre bending" have been used, but that sort of technical talk almost sanitises the film of what it really is. Yes, it is a Western thriller; yes, it has elements of horror and drama that are rarely combined into one piece of celluloid storytelling; yet, to talk about it like it's an easily explained piece of cinema is to strip it of what makes it so special. Brimstone clocks in at roughly 140 minutes, excluding the ending credits, and every second of that time is perfectly distributed to tell one of the best stories moviegoers have seen in a long time. The movie is out in UK cinemas now, via Thunderbird Releasing.

Brimstone is the story of Liz (Dakota Fanning), at least that's how it appears from first impressions. To explain it would be to give away part of the plot, so just going in, know this is the story of Liz. A mute mother of one, stepmother of another, she and her husband live in a small town in a more forested area of the country. Anyone who has been to Kentucky or West Virginia may mistake it for that part of the country if not for the mountain ranges in the background.

A midwife, Liz becomes embroiled in a bit of local controversy, no thanks to the arrival of the immediately problematic Reverend (Guy Pearce). As soon as he arrives, Elizabeth knows he is trouble, and her suspicions don't take long to be confirmed. The first chapter may setup an excellent confrontation, but it is the middle two chapters that make Brimstone feel so unique.

Brimstone doesn't just showcase the Reverend's brutality, and leave you with that as justification for the battle against him. It shows Liz's life and how it has led her to this place. By exploring her back story, viewers are given so much depth and character development that it can be a bit overwhelming trying to remember it all. It never feels rushed, and director Martin Koolhoven does an amazing job pacing the film and making it feel like it was ripped from the manuscript of a forgotten literary genius. To summarise, by pacing the film out and making viewers get to know Liz, is a work of absolute genius.

The second chapter begins to showcase Elizabeth's past, and sets the tone for the movie as a whole. This isn't just a thriller; this is a young woman's journey from victim to hero. There is a hint of feminism throughout, as many of the films men are portrayed as perverse, ostentatious pigs who seek to justify their wants, regardless of any woman's suffering that may come of it. However, before you scream that this is misogynistic slime, it's important to point out that the evils of men are only portrayed by those who serve antagonistic roles.

Kit Harington's Samuel, for example, is a man who stumbles upon Liz's early years, and provides her an example of how a man can be noble, and not boorish. Unfortunately, Samuel is a small blip on Liz's journey to overcome her demons, but she does meet men who are not obsessed with their own needs, and do what they can to help. The point seems to be that men of power, of which most of the villains in Brimstone are, become horrible people who take what they want, and give nothing in return.

This is all important as it sets the eventual power struggle between the Reverend and Liz, and by the final stand-off, it feels both earned and incredibly powerful.  After so much time learning about Liz and why the Reverend is such a malicious force, it feels like a real David and Goliath showdown. There hints, at least it seems, that the Reverend may not be human, but this is never explicitly stated, and lends itself to the mystery behind the film. It also lends itself to the struggle Liz has against him, and makes it almost seem like she's not just fighting an evil man, but the Devil himself.

The film is, however, a bit long for what it accomplishes. The power struggle is made all the more important by the various details the two middle chapters provide, but some of the content seems like it could have been cut, specifically in chapter two. It does add a lot of credence to Liz's journey overall, but there are a few moments that don't seem to have any real impact on the story. One moment involving an outhouse comes to mind as being rather superfluous, as it seems to want to remind people that this movie is in the unforgiving Old West…and that's all.

Oh, and if you have issue with gore, steer clear. The violence here is absolutely relentless, and many times the film features cringe-worthy moments that are as gory as they are powerful. Brimstone does, however, manage to hold itself back, and a lot of the more upsetting moments are wisely inferred.

The performances here are absolutely fantastic, especially when it comes to Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning's. Despite the cover's implication, Kit Harington is really only in the movie for a short time, probably less than 10 minutes when it's all added up. His physical performance is well delivered, although his accent is tough to stomach at times, and feels very cartoony more often than not. Other performances, like Carice van Houten's Anna, feel underutilised as she portrays a victim of the Reverend's constant malice with a subtle grace that manages to speak volumes. Through both of their performances, as with any great supporting performance, onlookers are taught more about a more menacing figure in the film.

Dakota Fanning manages to give one of her best performances, largely conveyed through body language as she doesn't speak for a large portion of her time on-screen. Guy Pearce is equally powerful, becoming almost the embodiment of evil and a fantastic bad guy throughout. One of the film's best performances, bar none, goes to 15-year-old Emilia Jones who plays the extremely important and sensitive role of Joanna. Some of the most difficult and horrifying imagery centres round her character, and her performance is absolutely astounding.

There are some moments that, as previously mentioned, don't feel important, though. One moment, at the end, comes off as silly, and seems to reinforce the idea that the Reverend may not be entirely human. Other characters, like Liz's stepson, Matthew, or her friend, Elizabeth, seem to have heavier purposes, but largely act as emotional puppets to make the viewer feel closer to Liz. The bigger monster, though, is the ending. While it's manages to wrap up the story well enough, how it comes to be feels incredibly cheap. It glosses over a massive amount of information in favour of being a shocking ending. While it feels perfectly in sync with Liz's adventure, it just seems like it could have ended in absolutely any other way.

Rated 8 out of 10

Great - Silver Award

Rated 8 out of 10
Brimstone is a magnificent film that only stumbles a few times. Those stumbles are noticeable but don't ruin the film as a whole. While the very end of the film proves that the length may be working against the experience in general, this is a Biblical showdown that also manages to make viewers feel something for the main character. For that alone, this is an accomplishment rarely seen in cinema these days, and its makers should be proud.

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