In a country where Paul Verhoeven represents cinéma du papa, it makes sense that a younger generation of filmmakers would produce something like Brimstone. Calling back to Verhoeven’s earthy, sex-drenched cinema of the 1970s, but updating it with the gory sensibilities of a contemporary horror movie, Brimstone is a spectacularly lurid melodrama that seeks to excuse indulgences both bloody and lewd by catching them up in a lecture about runaway misogyny, which is used as a stick with which to beat its heroine nearly to death over and over again. Brimstone is the kind of movie where a bullet wound is rarely just a bullet wound — generally it’s the goo-slick remnants of a head shot, with blood spatter plus a little puddle, and a few gobbets of brain matter sprinkled around the scene like so much sea salt on a plate of raw meat. It’s the kind of movie where a child is not only placed in peril, but is outright tortured on screen. And it’s the kind of movie where a woman absolutely, positively cannot catch a goddamned break.
Dakota Fanning stars as Liz, introduced to us in the first of the film’s four chapters as a voiceless midwife who gets herself in trouble with The Reverend (a scarred, gravel-voiced Guy Pearce), a new preacher in town, after performing an emergency abortion. For some reason, Liz immediately feels that The Reverend has it in for her; before long, he has promised that he came to town to punish her, and it’s easy to believe him. He’s fearsomely strong, forcefully imposing, and may as well have the ability to teleport through walls. He’s like a comic-book villain with superpowers and a mean strike a mile long. If Koolhoven — that’s director Martin Koolhoven, who bills himself with one name only, like Falconetti, or McG — had a sense of humor about any of this, Brimstone could be a wild classic of exploitation cinema. Instead, it feels a little like homework, as Koolhoven drags the sad story out to 148 increasingly tedious minutes, which is a long time to spend having images of degredation and helplessness heaped into your eyeholes. By the time Carice Van Houten’s preacher’s wife gets fitted with a locking iron muzzle, or Liz’s nine-year-old daughter gets whipped bloody by her father, who’s now rhapsodizing about impregnating her, I had honestly had about enough.
And yet Brimstone has appealing qualities. The first segment plays like a less-austere variant on Robert Eggers’ terrific supernatural horror film The Witch, with Liz’s in-the-moment decision to take the life of an infant in order to save its mother establishing something like feminist intentions. The second part is the closest Brimstone comes to actual Western territory, and by that I simply mean that Koolhoven seems to have binge-watched Deadwood in the not-too-distant past, borrowing its half-nude whores and florid profanity if not the insistent poetics of its story beats and spoken-word rhythms. That story builds to a fairly rousing climax before ceding the screen to segment number three, a cut-rate Fanny and Alexander variant that delivers a few grim chuckles alongside the now-explicit themes of corrupt religious beliefs, corrosive sexism and outright incest.
The capper is a fourth segment that compares unfavorably to a Tarantino-style revenge thriller; I liked the overall slasher-movie stylings, as though Liz is being stalked across all four segments by cruel religious patriarchy itself, but Brimstone is unsatisfying in its rape-revenge particulars. It’s Gaspar Noe without the freaky-deaky audacity and grandiose concern for the human condition or, maybe more to the point, Lars Von Trier without the formal elegance. If you feel Von Trier takes too much delight in the Suffering of Good Women, you’d do well to steer well clear of this equally brutal but less aesthetically compelling version of the Same Old Story.