BRIMSTONE  * 1 / 2

Starring Dakota Fanning, Guy Pearce, Emilia Jones, Carice Van Houten and Kit Harington. Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven.

There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good Western, and this sure ain’t one of those.

Writer-director Martin Koolhoven’s ostentatiously unpleasant Brimstone does not begin badly. Dakota Fanning stars as a mute midwife in a frontier town, forced to choose during a difficult birth between saving the life of the mother or the baby. Her decision doesn’t sit well with the menfolk, particularly enraging their new pastor, who with a heavy Dutch accent insists she must be punished for meddling in God’s business. The Reverend –played by Guy Pearce with a chinstrap beard and a face full of scars– has been giving Fanning the heebie-jeebies since the day he arrived, but it’s not like she can tell anybody why. This evocative opening suggests perhaps we’re in for an abortion allegory, with Fanning tending to women’s health issues and clashing with male authority figures like an old-timey Planned Parenthood. Sigh, if only.

In short order Pearce kills Fanning’s husband, slaughters the livestock and burns down their farmhouse, chasing her off into the night. The rest of Brimstone’s 148 punishing minutes unfold in reverse-chronology chapters, teasing out the sordid, sickening history of these two characters in an austere pageant of torture, mutilation, incest and sexual assault before circling back for a final confrontation. The segments have titles like “Exodus,” “Genesis” and “Retribution,” so you know they’re gonna be tons of fun. Koolhaven’s penchant for portentous names extends even to locales, as a goodly chunk of the film depicts Fanning’s character coming of age in a frontier brothel called “Frank’s Inferno.”

The routine abuses and sexual humiliations of said bordello I suppose constitute the lighter material in a film so monotonously grim and sadistic it makes Logan look like La La Land. Koolhaven has no idea how to modulate the tone, nor how to suggest any semblance of humor or life going on outside of the film’s foreordained gloom and doom. The lurid excesses lack the trashy exuberance of an exploitation picture, mired in a grim solemnity nowhere near as intelligent nor enlightening as the film seems to think it is.

Koolhaven’s visuals have a severity that, while occasionally effective, can also feel fussy. He gets the most out of Fanning’s expressive eyes. The fine actress, too often overshadowed by her kid sister these days, does what she can to provide whatever warmth this miserable exercise can muster. Pearce as usual goes full ham hock, here playing a preposterously written force of evil, like Robert Mitchum in Night Of The Hunter except without any of the details that define a character.

Arduously long and brutal right up until the depressingly ironic epilogue that serves as a final twist of the knife, Brimstone’s pseudo-profundo pitilessness I assume is supposed to leave you cursing the arbitrary cruelness of this world. Instead I was angrier at whichever school librarian years ago in the Netherlands decided it was okay to let a young, impressionable Martin Koolhaven read so much Cormac McCarthy.


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