Directed by Martin Koolhoven
Written by Martin Koolhoven
Starring Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice van Houten & Kit Harington
Film Review by Dean Pettipher
Christopher Nolan once said, “films are subjective - what you like, what you don't like. But the thing for me that is absolutely unifying is the idea that every time I go to the cinema and pay my money and sit down and watch a film go up on-screen, I want to feel that the people who made that film think it's the best movie in the world, that they poured everything into it and they really love it. Whether or not I agree with what they've done, I want that effort there. I want that sincerity. And when you don't feel it, that's the only time I feel like I'm wasting my time at the movies.” Martin Koolhoven worked for nearly seven years on Brimstone (2016). He estimated that writing the script took roughly three and a half years, getting the financial side of the project in order took about two years and then the production took a year and a half. The passion project required an investment of Koolhoven’s own money to keep its prospects alive. At one point, when funding for the picture nearly collapsed, the sheer amount of stress that followed caused Koolhoven to suffer a panic attack. Ostensibly, Koolhoven and his collaborators certainly put all that they possibly could from behind the scenes into making the movie the best that it could be. Fortunately, their efforts appear reciprocated to the fullest by cast in front of the camera. Indeed, an essence of unyielding tenacity that flows throughout the film from its first to its final shot sustains a formidable emotional connection between the characters and their audiences that might otherwise be swiftly sliced apart by particular qualities, most notably many instances of seemingly excessive violence, which in isolation, are, at least for some, very challenging to watch.
The acting is so enthralling from the leads especially that one can quite easily overlook any occasional slips made in the pursuit of perfect accents of either Dutch or Deep South origin. Dakota Fanning has come a long way from her highly-acclaimed performance in War of the Worlds (2005), proving yet again that she has comfortably transitioned from a gifted child star to a genuinely talented actress in adulthood. She is particularly impressive in her conveyance of various troubling sentiments through body language and facial expressions, for they oftentimes reach both the other characters inhabiting her extremely bleak world and the audiences observing it from beyond the forth wall with the upmost clarity, making the initial mystery clouding their motivations that much more exciting. Following the performance of her sister, Elle Fanning, in the recent critically-celebrated American gothic drama, The Beguiled (2017), it is difficult to deny that their respective talents are at, more or less, equally high standards. Guy Pearce portrays a religious fanatic who is far more chilling than even the antagonist that he played in the Western entitled Lawless (2012). Witnessing his turpitudes proves to be a true test of endurance that is almost akin to those brought to life in 12 Years a Slave (2013). Finally Kit Harrington serves yet again as a worthy cynosure for the audience. While Harington has yet to land a role in the movies that attracts the admirable amount of attention that his definitive part of Jon Snow in Game of Thrones (2011-Present) did in the sphere of television, his performance in Brimstone, along with others, including his noteworthy appearances in Testament of Youth (2014) and even How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), indicate that he deserves more opportunities to showcase his versatility as an artist through all dramatic mediums.
Where some audiences might struggle with Brimstone is the uncompromising presentation of the horrors of the period. The carnage may at times feel somewhat superfluous for those who are not immersed in the tale and invested in the protagonist’s struggles. However, as with the movies helmed by Quentin Tarantino, such as Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), the repulsiveness of the extreme but not quite over-the-top violence is compensated for, above all else, by a thoroughly engaging story. The same goes for similar television shows like Hell on Wheels (2011-2016). When the story is good, such violence may be tolerated as a necessary or even essential facet of the director’s vison for the film or television series. Brimstone balances out the ruthless bloodshed principally with an intriguing story structure that splits the picture into four clearly-defined parts that could all, incidentally, make pretty good television episodes if they were shown in isolation. While at times the pace of each chapter can become a little too slow, they all feature superb instances of suspense and poignancy. Moreover, the traditional Western sees further experimentation, in addition to its typical story structure, in the form of a female protagonist. The survival story told here features a young woman who is at least as intriguing and as likeable as the heroine of the revenge tale expertly brought to the silver screen by the Coen brothers, Hailee Steinfeld and others in the form of True Grit (2010), since both women are fully-realised and three-dimensional leads.
In the end, while it may struggle to leave a lasting impression as great as some of this year’s biggest movies like Dunkirk (2017) and Wonder Woman (2017), Brimstone is definitely worth a try for those who passionately adore the Western and those who revel in experimentation of long-established genre norms. Also, of course, for those who are big fans of the movie’s unquestionably talented, passionate and determined cast and crew, a solid, bitter-sweet cinematic experience awaits.