Martin Koolhoven (director)
Thunderbird Releasing (studio)
19 February 2018 (released)
01 March 2018
This primarily Dutch and multi-award winning western-thriller was shot in Europe with an international cast including Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Carice van Houten and Kit Harington. The result is one of the most harrowing, powerful and unsettling westerns imaginable in which the unforgiving landscape plays as much a part as its message of female empowerment.
The film is divided into four chapters (Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution) and tells the story of Elizabeth (aka Joanna) played by Dakota Fanning. In the first chapter we learn that she is a mute midwife who lives with her husband Eli (William Houston) and two children on a remote farm in the Old West around 1880. Her daughter Sam (Ivy George) is her own child (together with Eli) while stepson Matt (Jack Hollington) is Eli’s son from his first marriage. Matt openly rejects Liz as his new mother. One day, when the family attend church service, a new Reverend (Guy Pearce) preaches and Liz immediately shivers in terror upon hearing his voice. After the service she tries to avoid meeting the new Reverend, much to the bewilderment of Eli who, together with the other churchgoers, welcomes him into the community. It is clear from Liz’s reaction that she has met the Reverend before but as yet we are kept in the dark as to the background story. Just as Liz and Eli are about to return to their remote farm a female member of the congregation collapses in agony, as she is about to give birth prematurely. Liz and some helpers bring the woman back into the church where Liz tries desperately to save mother and child but can only save one, as a result the baby dies. Some nights later Nathan, the outraged husband of the grieving mother, rides to Liz and Elis’ farm where he starts shooting and demands Liz should burn at the stake for being a witch and causing the death of his unborn child. Eli manages to calm the man. Liz knows that it is the Reverend who brainwashed Nathan into thinking that she is a witch. The following night she sneaks off and rides to the church house in order to kill the preacher… but he is not there. Instead she finds Sam’s doll and immediately senses danger. Panic-stricken she returns to the farm where meanwhile, the sinister Reverend has disembowelled Eli. Dying, he urges son Matt to take the remaining family to safety into the mountains where his own father lives in a cottage. Liz and the children manage to flee from the burning farm.
The second chapter is set several years earlier and starts with a teenage girl called Joanna (Emilia Jones) walking through the desert with blood-smeared bare feet before a traveling Chinese family find her and bring her to the town of Bismuth, a lawless town in which the local brothel dominates and which is run by the ruthless Frank (Paul Anderson from PEAKY BLINDERS). The Chinese family sell Joanna to Frank and we learn how Joanna grows up to be held as a prostitute and how she took on the identity of the mute ‘Elizabeth’ after the Reverend unexpectedly turns up in the brothel in search for… Joanna… with fatal consequences for some individuals.
The third chapter goes back even further in time and it is revealed that Joanna (now the mute Liz) is in fact the Reverend’s daughter! The Reverend is a hypocritical and evil zealot who abuses his wife Anna (Carice van Houten) and is extremely strict with his family and with his flock. One day, two wounded men called Samuel (Kit Harington) and Wolf ( Roth) turn up on the farm asking for help and water. The two men – outlaws by the looks of it - seem to be the sole survivors of a group of men all killed in a dispute over gold. Joanna hides the two inside the pigsty and secretly brings them food. She also develops a bit of a thing for Samuel. Her longing for him and her mother’s suicide in light of the Reverend’s continuing humiliation, combined with his thoughts of incest, set the stage for the film’s next and final chapter in which the story returns to the grown-up and mute Liz again… fleeing with her kids through the icy wilderness followed by a revenge-driven and utterly unhinged Reverend…
The acting is superb and completely believable, in particular Emilia Jones is a revelation as the young Joanna as it couldn’t have been easy to act in scenes with such adult themes. Dakota Fanning of course stands out as the headstrong woman who will fight on against all odds, a true example of a survivor in a man-dominated world and she convinces with her nuanced performance. The ever-brilliant Guy Pearce delivers beginning to end and his Reverend is a character who deserves no redemption. Kit Harington hasn’t too much of a part it must be said and appears relatively late into the film (sorry ladies) but when he does his warm and understanding outlook towards the young Joanne brings a much needed anti-dote to the despicable behaviour of the Reverend. The cinematography by Tom Holkenborg is spot-on and captures the harsh environment perfectly.
BRIMSTONE is one of the best western-thrillers ever made, take my word for it.