‘Brimstone’ Tests Your Patience with an Overload of Repulsive Violence

GameStop, Inc.


In the western Brimstone from writer-director Martin Koolhaven, the story unfolds in the Tarantino-esque fashion of a non-linear story broken up into a series of chapters. Koolhaven creates a grim western world of bloody retribution over two and a half hours, but Brimstone is lacking in material to justify the bloated running time as the story unfolds in ugly chapter overflowing with ugly events after ugly chapter overflowing with ugly events. If you ever wondered what a Tarantino western would be without any witty banter and a predilection towards the most gruesome forms of violence without the subversive catharsis, you need look no further than Brimstone. This movie features some interesting moments at first but then becomes an endurance test as Koolhaven pushes the limits of tolerability on his audience.

In the first chapter of Brimstone, Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a mute midwife who is assisted by her young daughter Sam (Ivy George). Her husband Eli (William Houston) oversees their homestead and cares for his wife and children. One day at church, a new preacher (Guy Pierce) enters town and just the sight of him causes Liz to tremble with terror. It doesn’t take us long to learn that there’s a history between Liz and this mysterious preacher with a scar along his eyes, and he makes it perfectly clear to Liz that his only goal is torment her by any means necessary. In subsequent chapters, the complicated and horrendous nature of their relationship is revealed. Needless to say, vengeance is on the mind of both parties in this ongoing feud.

Undoubtedly, the first chapter of Brimstone is the most compelling. It’s pretty gruesome with its violence but there’s a central mystery that is unsettling and does pull you into the movie. The final three chapters, however, aren’t as interesting and they get progressively worse and uglier as the film progresses.

The second and third chapters of the film provide Liz’s backstory as she was once a young woman named Joanna (Emilia Jones). Without going into too much detail to preserve the mystery for anyone who wants to watch the film, her backstory involves being sold into a brothel as a teenager. The brothel is a brutal place full of sexual violence and ruled with an iron fist by Frank (Paul Anderson). These scenes are just brutal and purely exploitative without much in the way of purpose besides presenting a world driven by an endless cycle of violence. That extends to the chapter of Joanna’s pre-brothel life with her mother and father, and the wounded stranger (Kit Harrington) that she shelters in the barn. Again, this is a chapter dominated by violence against women and the film becomes more and more unbearable in its sadistic overtones that operate without wit or purpose aside from just repulsive violence.

Guy Pierce handles his menacing preacher character with aplomb, inflecting a Dutch accent to his vengeful sermons. In a mostly mute performance, Dakota Fanning shows a side of her hitherto unseen. But no actor can elevate the ugliness of the film’s content which is just brutality for the sake of brutality. Most of the characters seem as if they were sketched from archetypes from far superior movies, and the attempts to add depth through a non-linear story are nothing more than excuses to present violent acts as the primary driving force for the characters. It just becomes incredibly tiresome before the film has even approached the halfway mark.

Martin Koolhaven does deserve some credit for the textured look of Brimstone, even if it’s often in service of repellant content. There’s a grittiness to this world that really comes through in the costume and makeup work, and even the film’s ample gore effects are striking in their appearance. Koolhaven also sneaks in some really amazing shots at moments, but, again, it’s so often being employed to repulse the viewer with its abhorrent content. It’d be nice to see Koolhaven employ his talented eye in material that isn’t so enamored with sadistic violence or at least written with an understanding of how to utilize brutality as a means to explore some themes.

Brimstone is a western that grabs you at first and its grip slowly weakens as more and more blood covers its hands. There’s a good movie buried within all the ugliness on display but Martin Koolhaven isn’t able to piece it all together. Instead it’s just an endurance test of the worst possible kind, one that is a succession of violent acts that lose their potency after you’ve been inundated with them. I have no problem with violence in the movies but it needs to have some kind of purpose. Brimstone just continues to hammer home the blood and guts with sound and fury yet never finding a purpose.

  • Overall Score


An overlong portrait of sadistic violence, Brimstone is like a Tarantino western with its story structure but lacks in witty banter or an understanding of how to properly utilize graphic violence in what amounts to an endurance test of brutality.

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