“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves”, a warning to remind people how people can do malevolent things and yet perceived as right and just.
This same phrase is heard repeatedly from the key antagonist throughout Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone. A dark and grim Neo-Western that depicts the sorrowful past of women, Koolhaven subjects his female characters to excruciating physical-cum-mental pain and torture.
Violence manifests the entire two and a half hour film to make it difficult to sit through. It is however not the violence that disgusts, but how the acts of heinous violence and perverse carnal desires are righteously justified by their perpetrators in the name of religion.
There are four biblically titled chapters (Revelation, Exodus, Genesis, Retribution) elaborately structured in reverse chronological order. As the chapters run backwards in time, affairs get darker and more brutal as viewers follow Liz (Dakota Fanning) and her insidious nemesis that took the form of her stepfather - The Reverent (Guy Pearce) at their church.
Call it superstition in its purest form of evil. The Reverent whips his wife just because she did not receive God’s calling. His incestuous intentions towards his barely-teenager daughter are justified simply by quoting a biblical reference. The Reverend begins to worship the Devil in the name of his Protestant church.
It is difficult to argue that people do not realise their wrongdoings because they are ignorant and superstitious. There are many interpretations of religious scriptures and teachings. At the end of the day, people choose to believe what they want to believe. It gets worse when a person of stature and authority like the Reverent influences and endorses wickedness.
A few supporting characters who try to step forward and do what is right are instead rewarded with ill-fated outcomes. One of them has his intestines pulled out and around his neck. This creates an even gloomier realm that is sadistically juxtaposed against occasional picturesque scenes of nature to effectively make Koolhoven’s Brimstone a film of bipolar extremes.
This is well received from the powerful performances by Pearce and Fanning’s ability to relay emotions as a mute. The palpable tensions and dynamics between their characters provided much of the film’s horror and thrills.
In the final chapter as Koolhoven’s narrative pushes Liz out of her plight, an appalling revelation dawns upon all. Even if she is able to escape from her nemesis, Liz cannot escape from her fate. While one is able to control one’s actions and be accountable, it is never possible to control what others will do. Every decision and action come with consequences – it’s just a matter of time.
Some may view Koolhoven as a false prophet, but his ability to draw perspectives and make people feel vividly in others’ shoes is strongly evident. Koolhoven’s Brimstone may be painful to watch but it evokes strong sentiments to intrigue and warn its audience about hypocrisy in life. - Jason Lin