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.
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