Daily | Venice + Toronto 2016 | Martin Koolhoven’s BRIMSTONE

Brimstone, the first English-language feature from Dutch director Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime), is probably best described as a Protestant Western,” begins Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “With its punishing 149-minute running time, relentlessly gloomy tone but the ultimately principled moral message, it feels like a sermon delivered by an extremely cine-literate preacher. This very cinematic if not quite epic drama, divided into four chapters the first three of which are arranged in reverse chronological order, tells the story of a mute young woman’s fight for survival in the 19th-century American West, where an evil reverend seems hell-bent on making her life miserable.” Screen‘s Lee Marshall finds that, “anchored to its fragile tentpole only by the considerable acting skills of Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning, Brimstone makes its audience want to pray for forgiveness by running home and rewatching Night of the Hunter.” Koolhoven “lifts at least two plot devices wholesale from Charles Laughton’s 1955 masterpiece of menace in what one assumes is intended as an homage—but if so it backfires badly, serving only to illuminate the heavy-handed solemnity of this tastefully packaged but a borderline offensive slice of revenge porn, which starts promisingly but is slowly (alas, very slowly) drowned by backstory.” “The unending parade of religious symbolism becomes more than a little self-indulgent, what with repeated flagellation, angelic visitation, the flames of the damned, and blood, always blood,” writes the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver. “Through sheer demonic heft, Pearce dominates the film; Fanning is a game enough presence, chosen presumably for her open, expressive qualities as befits a woman who can’t speak. She does, however, seem to sail serenely through a string of traumas, including savage beatings, years caged in a brothel, and the infliction of medieval-style tortures, with little obvious consequence, physically or psychologically.”

As far as I can tell, going by what other critics and the festival synopses leave out, Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman gives away a major plot twist, so beware. His bottom line, though, is that “Brimstone is a lurid, grinding piece of religious high trash taking itself seriously.” “There are too many questions by the film’s conclusion unanswered, and which the film perhaps can’t answer,” suggests John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Koolhoven carves his West in solid wood and, though the geography is sketchy, it is a convincing muddy portrayal with more than a little Deadwood thereabouts.” More from Camillo De Marco at Cineuropa, where David González interviews Koolhoven: “I love spaghetti westerns, and what’s good about them is that even if they deal with a very American subject, they feel very Italian, in terms of their content and the way they were made. So I felt I needed to do something as Dutch as they were Italian; that’s how I came to this whole Calvinistic, religious story, which was typically Dutch.”

For Screen, Geoffrey Macnab describes how producer Els Vandevorst pulled this package together. “There were to be enormous setbacks along the way. Actors Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson both dropped out prior to the shoot…. There were also some happy accidents along the way.

Game of Thrones star Kit Harington was about to go on holiday when he was approached about taking a role. He canceled his holiday plans. From his point of view, and from that of Game of Thrones producers HBO, appearing in Brimstone turned out to be a useful marketing ruse. It helped convince many fans of the series that Jon Snow (his character in the series) was indeed dead. Why else, the fans asked themselves, would the actor be taking other roles?” Brimstone, which also stars Carice van Houten, is competing in Venice and will be a Special Presentation in Toronto.

Update, 9/5: “Ultimately, Brimstone is built on a ‘feminist’ concept in the same way that relentlessly repeating ‘feminism’ until you can only hear disjointed syllables equals talking about feminism,” writes Tommaso Tocci at the Film Stage. “Even worse, this concept only relies on the repeated, repetitive abuse of multiple generations of women in order to emerge, and is diminished by various self-satisfied, cheap-thrills choices that feel badly out of place. Shame, as there was a more articulated, sui generis western in here somewhere.”

Update, 9/10: For Jessica Kiang at the PlaylistBrimstone earns “its feminist credentials by favoring the perspective of a woman whose strength lies not in how she challenges or co-opts male hegemony, but in how she negotiates it and manages to survive its most gruesomely punishing excesses. She never abandons frocks for chaps or learns how to Annie Oakley her way through adversity, but Fanning’s Liz is a progressive portrayal of personal resilience against overwhelming, perhaps even demonic, odds.” Still, though: B-.

Update, 9/18: “I’m not sure that last-act vindication really justifies all the movie’s lovingly filmed brutality, but something about Brimstone, with its fiery, religio-sexual conviction, is undeniably strange and captivating,” finds Vanity Fair‘s, Richard Lawson. The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto.

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