J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Brimstone: A Western from Hell

This evil priest makes “Reverend” Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter look like Father Flanagan. He is such an evil cuss, he is never given a proper name. When he rides, death, sadism, and incest follow in his wake. Just when his grown daughter thought she had started a new life, he reappears like Freddy Krueger in Martin Koolhoven’s ridiculously lurid Brimstone (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Frankly, it is hard to say whether Brimstone was intended as a horror movie or a revisionist western. In this case, the ambiguity is due Koolhoven’s wild, unrestrained indulgences. When Liz’s tormentor suddenly appears as the new minister in town, he need only touch the stomach of a pregnant woman to induce a miscarriage his midwife daughter will inevitably be blamed for. That sounds pretty darn Satanic, yet the Rev talks like Church Lady. Through his Mephistophelean influence, he turns the community against Liz and her adopted family, yet Koolhoven suddenly downshifts to grungy realism when he flashes back to explain how Liz and the Rev became so antagonistic.

After years of abusing Liz’s mother, the preacher decided to marry his daughter, because it is God’s will. Bizarrely, the stiff collared Dutch immigrant community he ministers to thinks nothing of it when Liz’s mother attends services in a steel muzzle. Subtlety, be gone. Koolhoven hast cast thee out of this movie.

Obviously, Koolhoven has a pathological hatred of Protestantism, but the obsession with menstruation he projects onto the Reverend-Without-a-Name really opens up a window into his own dark psyche. The sort of misogynist violence and transgressive sexual kinks assembled in Brimstone cries out for a psychological intervention. Frankly, it is more than a little disturbing to think Koolhoven was working with children, while filming both Brimstone and his infinitely superior Winter in Wartime.

Guy Pearce clownishly overacts as the evil Reverend. At one point, he literally howls at the moon like a wolf. Both Dakota Fanning and Emilia Jones maintain more dignity playing Liz and her fifteen-year-old self, when she was known as Joanna. Sadly, Carice van Houten is largely wasted and sort of humiliated as Liz/Joanna’s horribly abused mother. However, her Game of Thrones co-star Kit Harington provides a bit of hope and energy, even though the contrived presence of his gunslinger character stretches believability to the breaking point.

Brimstone gives over-the-top excess a bad name. Who in their right mind would name their saloon-bordello “Frank’s Inferno?” Yet, that is where Liz is forced into white slavery after temporarily escaping her father’s lustful clutches. Nothing is too on-the-nose, as long as it fits Koolhoven’s crude hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-2x4 symbolism. Arguably, Brimstone is so barking mad, some folks will want to see it for its own freak show appeal, but you should probably avoid such temptations for the good of your soul. Not recommended, especially not at its life-sucking two-and-a-half hour running time, Brimstone opens today (3/10) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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