A young woman called Liz (Dakota Fanning) lives among Dutch immigrants in ‘the new world’. She forms a family with a husband and two children. When the father teaches his son to shoot she is visibly upset and tries to stop them. We quickly learn she’s unable to speak and she’s not the natural mother of the boy. The film truely gets going when one day a new reverend (Guy Pearce) arrives in the small town -with a giant scar on his face across his left eye- and Liz starts to be haunted by past demons or a demon from the past to be more exact. Things really start to take a bad turn when Liz -while performing her duties as a midwife- needs to make a decision to safe the life of either the mother or the child.
The film tells the story of Liz in an achronological order (somewhat befitting of a film starring the lead actor of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000) although it doesn’t completely mimic that films structure) divided into four chapters; Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution slowly but surely revealing how all the elements fit together.
Although the film contains all the familiar elements we’ve become to expect (a duel in the streets, outlaws fighting over gold, scenes set in a horse stable, a whorehouse, …) Brimstone is not your usual western. It combines elements of both the classic american as well as the european western and that of horror films, with at times ‘gutsy’ results.
Martin Koolhoven has definitely studied the genre at length and you can tell he’s less interested in the more straightforward, simplistic, good versus evil (and of course good prevailing in the end), dressed in black versus dressed in white type of western when he finally was able to present his take on it. His heart tends to lean more towards individuals like the 3 Sergio’s (Leone, Sollima and Corbucci) or Hollywood outlaws such as Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, …) and Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, … ) and the man that has almost become the personification (both as an actor and as a director) of the western: Clint Eastwood (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Unforgiven, … ).
Throughout the film you can detect hints towards other westerns; the character that can not speak from a.o. Corbucci’s The Great Silence, a body being fed to pigs as in the HBO series Deadwood, … we could go on for quite some time. The film that he’s quoted most directly however is Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), probably the most cinematic movie ever made by an actor. When you see the character Liz sitting on her porch with a shotgun in an attempt to guard over her family inside (“Never leave your loved ones alone. You should know that by now.”) and in the distance you hear a voice singing menacingly (without even trying hard at it) it’s impossible not to think of Lilian Gish and Robert Mitchum in the aforementioned masterpiece.
As far as horror films are concerned at times Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) came to mind. There’s the importance of a birthmark (has a completely different role in Brimstone though) and the scene in which a nanny hangs herself in quite a spectacular fashion during a chidren’s birthday party that may have influenced Koolhaven for one of the films most horrific and significant moments.
Also Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) may well have (consciously or unconsciously) been on Koolhoven’s mind when he came up with the concept of Brimstone. Besides some pigs blood and a house being burnt to the ground it was actually the image of a fanatically religious parent draging her child through the house and into a broom closet -dragging through the mud in Brimstone- that immediately made a connection in my mind with the De Palma film.
Also the scene in which a character is being offed while in an outhouse for a number two, seemed to combine a scene from Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) with De Palma’s Blow Out (1981). I’m referring to the scene in the De Palma film in which a prostitute is brushing her teeth in a train station toilet but is murdered in quite a brutal fashion by the man that supposedly was to be her next customer.
Koolhoven has expressed his admiration for De Palma in the past and even had a scene in his previous film Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime, 2008)
that was clearly influenced by De Palma’s Blow Out
. The director was kind enough to take the time to acknowledge the influence when I recently pointed it out in a Tweet, even though he didn’t see it as an ‘homage’: https://twitter.com/MartinKoolhoven/status/823147953917427712
You can check the comparison clip here:
Another potential Blow Out reference in Brimstone:
Some inferno and brimstones in De Palma’s Carrie:
Another film that may have influenced Koolhoven -even though Brimstone was conceived well before- is Bertrand Bonello’s L’Apollonide (2012) a film set in a early 20th century brothel that similarly depicts the hardships women had to endure in the past.
Kolhoven was able to gather an impressive and interesting cast. With her role of Liz, Dakota Fanning should easily be able to get rid of her perception of a child star once and forever. Women are hardly ever the main character in westerns, I can think of only a few that have the name of a women in the title –Calamity Jane (1953), The Sons of Katie Elder (1967), Hannie Caulder (1971) and Jane Got a Gun (2016)– or in which women play an important part –Westward the women (1951), Johnny Guitar (1954) and Meek’s Cutoff (2010).
Guy Pearce who starred in the Australian western The Proposition seems ever so eager to revisit the genre with his depiction of the Reverend that looks like a devilish, self flagellating evil twin of Abraham Lincoln who keeps re-interpreting the Bible to condone his unforgivable and gravest of sins. “Beware of false prophets, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing”.
In smaller parts you may well recognise Kit Harington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) as an outlaw and Carice van Houten (Melisandre in Game of Thrones, Black Book, Valkyrie) as the Reverend’s wife and Paul Anderson (Brian De Palma’s Passion, The Revenant, the TV series Peaky Blinders) as the owner of ‘Frank’s Inferno’.
Dutch DoP Rogier Stoffers -who since he shot the Oscar winning film Karakter (1997)
was able to further his career in Europe as well as in Hollywood- was chosen to photograph the film and does a fine job. Most notable are a series of impressive top shots. Koolhoven re-teamed with editor Job ter Burg who also edited his previous film Oorlogswinter and who has also cut every Paul Verhoeven since his return to Europe. The music was done by another Dutch collaborator: Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg) who has a firm foothold in Hollywood with music scores for Mad Max: Fury Road (2016), Deadpool (2016)
and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
The film is known as Brimstone but the title clearly mentions Koolhoven’s Brimstone. Perhaps the director is hereby somewhat playfully hinting at Tarantino’s proudly announcing his film as the 8th or 9th film by Quentin Tarantino. It may be that for the first time he felt like he made a film of which he truly is the author and therefore in keeping with the title of the famous Frank Capra autobiography ‘The Name above the Title’ (which by the way has a foreword by another legend of the western: John Ford) he earned to put his name above the title.
As previously stated Koolhoven, as is Tarantino, is a cinephile in general and a western aficionado in particular and both can’t help but referring to other films. The main difference is that Koolhoven in this film is not going for the fun factor.
The fact that Martin Koolhoven is a cinephile (strangely enough reviewers oftentimes seem to consider this as a negative) didn’t at all prevent him from leaving his own personal, original imprint on the genre. Despite the fact that the film was shot on location in Germany, Spain, Hungary and Spain, Brimstone has an original feel that has no problem in passing for an otherwise nondescript American West.
He certainly did not make a film that aims to please everybody and there’s plenty of stuff in this film to be shocked or offended by for those that wish to be so. The depiction of the religiously inspired suppression and physical violation of women -you’ll have to see the chastity belt-like headlock-set that locks up women’s faces to believe it- may well prove to be too much for some. It is nevertheless refreshing and not without merit -specifically in the present day- to show this kind of depiction in a non-islamic setting.
Brimstone has gained its place among a number of recent film such as Slow West (2015), Bone Tomahawk (2015), The Homesman (2014) Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
(a rare western that was actually also directed by a woman) and the HBO series Westworld (2016)
that prove that now for more then a century the genre of the western keeps inspiring directors to add new, personal and interesting films to its canon.
I was also pleased to see the name of Harry Kümel, the director of Daughters of Darkness, Malpertuis, … and former teacher of director Martin Koolhaven, being mentioned among the names that were thanked.