Reflections on the brutal Dutch/American shock Western
There’s something about the American western that bleeds beautifully past the margins of the horror film. It’s the elemental nature of the former genre; the idea of lawlessness, of the struggle against the elements, of being naked and exposed and desperate in an unformed world where life has little meaning and the concept of a civilized society is barely kept upright by the spine of religion. The Italians — Leone, Corbucci et al — first exploited the Gothic, Grand Guignol nature of the western throughout the 1960s and later, Chilean surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky took it further with the metaphysical eastern/western El Topo and Sam Peckinpah dragged it home again with his string of squib-happy, brutal oaters. Then, in the waning days of the 1970s, the western died, replaced by harder horror films and contemporary action films, with young people less interested in the brutality of the wild frontier, with only a few spits and spurts (Unforgiven, HBO’s Deadwood) springing to life on occasion to remind us of the genre’s power.
But the western is back where it belongs now, hiding on the dark, morally dodgy fringes, violent, sexual and unsparing. Indie cinema has recognized the appeal of setting darker dramas in these primal American landscapes and the indie western is the new horror movie, full stop. Witness the recent masterpiece Bone Tomahawk and the upcoming Christian Bale oater Hostiles and scrappier stuff like Red on Yella, Kill a Fella. Hell, even HBO has gone to the well again, perverting the Western with their ultra-violent, hyper-sexual revisit of Michael Crichton’s Westworld.
Nestled among the pack of nouveau wild west-set shockers is Dutch filmmaker Martin (Winter in Wartime) Koolhoven’s Brimstone, an arthouse horror morality tale western that blends the European flavor of the Spaghetti Western with a distinctly Dutch dark wit and the sort of feminine-centric psyche-horror that Danish auteur Lars von Trier trades in. And there’s fluid. Plenty of spurting, seeping fluid, most of it unleashed by eruptions of unflinchingly hideous violence. But beneath its cracked baby skulls, rape, murders, outhouse hangings etc., there’s a point to Brimstone. It’s not a wallow in savagery, though it is one of the most savage films I’ve seen in some time. Instead it uses the idea of religion run rampant and exploited by evil to paint a portrait of pain, suffering, debasement and human vulgarity. And yet, at its core, it’s really about strength and courage during times of impossible atrocity. It’s like a satanic version of The Passion of the Christ by way of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Antonia Bird’s Ravenous.
As with the aforementioned horror western Ravenous, Guy Pearce stars in Brimstone albeit in a radically different role. Here, he’s a steroidal, possibly supernatural riff on Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter by way of Vincent Price’s Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General; a mad, sadistic and hypocritical sadist who uses his position to manipulate and pervert the natural world and redefine its rules to suit his nature. Pearce plays the role with an Abe Lincoln beard and vaguely Dutch accent and he’s a fearsome, ferocious and absolutely horrifying presence. As an aside, one must marvel at just how fantastic an actor he truly is, how he can easily play any kind of character, monstrous or meek and make it believable. More people need to discuss his genius…
Pearce’s reverend spends most of Brimstone‘s running time pursuing and attempting to decimate Dakota Fanning’s mute frontier woman Liz, with whom he shares a diabolical past. What that past is reveals itself in a serpentine narrative that starts in the middle, goes backwards, stops and then proceeds forwards again. Koolhoven deftly makes this episodic structure work. It’s not a gimmick; it’s an essential component of the film’s power to disorient.
To reveal too much of the story would de-fang the film’s primal power, but just be aware that Brimstone is the strongest of tonics and will likely offend and upset many. Some have accused it as being misogynistic, but it’s far from it. It’s bold in that it is absolutely PRO female and portrays the power of women in the face of the tyranny of men, especially during periods where they were far less protected and respected. Fanning — who acts with her trembling body and haunted eyes in an incredible performance — is a creature whose fate in Hell is seemingly sealed and who has to fight and lose everything in order to clean the slate and save herself. What she endures is unthinkable and hard to endure; for her character and for us, the audience.
Beautifully photographed and armed with a pulsating, emotional score by Junkie XL, Brimstone isn’t just a western, it’s an essential contemporary religio-horror movie and Pearce’s Devil-preacher is something ripped from your worst nightmare.
This is a work of the blackest and yet most visionary cinematic art.