Saturday, March 11, 2017

In Theaters/On VOD: BRIMSTONE (2017)

France/Belgium/Sweden - 2017)

Written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Cast: Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning, Kit Harington, Carice Van Houten, Emilia Jones, Paul Anderson, William Houston, Ivy George, Bill Tangradi, Jack Roth, Jack Hollington, Vera Vitali, Carla Juri, Adrian Sparks, Naomi Battrick, Justin Salinger, Frederick Schmidt, Dan Van Husen. (R, 148 mins)

Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven's first film since his acclaimed 2008 WWII drama WINTER IN WARTIME is a western so relentlessly bleak, grim, and disturbing that it makes HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER look like a Gene Autry vehicle. Equal parts Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, and Paul Thomas Anderson, the ambitious BRIMSTONE has moments of stunning atmosphere and remarkable audacity, scathingly critical of religion and patriarchy and those who use them to manipulate and subjugate. Told in four chapters (shades of von Trier and Tarantino) that unfold in reverse order (very Tarantino-like, but also perhaps a nod to star Guy Pearce being in MEMENTO), BRIMSTONE assembles the pieces of its puzzle--which later involves a couple of cast members taking on seemingly multiple roles--very deliberately and skillfully over its mammoth and often punishing two-and-a-half hours. As far as Guy Pearce westerns go, BRIMSTONE makes THE PROPOSITION seem like a feelgood crowd-pleaser by comparison. It's decidedly not for everyone and seems to be getting a more positive response in Europe than it is in the US, where its nonexistent commercial appeal has, not surprisingly, banished it to VOD with no push at all.

In the first chapter, titled "Revelation," mute frontier midwife Liz (Dakota Fanning) lives a happy life with her husband Eli (William Houston), their young daughter Sam (Ivy George), and Matthew (Jack Hollington), Eli's son with his late first wife. The family's life falls apart after Liz delivers a baby in church for a local woman when complications arose, forcing her to make a judgment call to save the mother instead of the baby. This makes her a pariah with the townsfolk, egged on by the recent arrival of a nameless Reverend (Pearce), who accuses Liz of playing God and whose presence upsets Liz for reasons that will become increasingly and tragically clear over the course of the film. In the second chapter, "Exodus," we're introduced to teenage Joanna (Emilia Jones), who's first seen wandering the desert in a state of distress before she falls in with Frank (Paul Anderson), owner of the local saloon/cathouse Frank's Inferno (in case it wasn't quite clear that they're all in Hell). Frank has the other women groom young Joanna for a life of prostitution and after a few years, the adult Joanna (Fanning) is one of the more popular girls at the Inferno, though they all live in fear of Frank, who often resorts to punishing those who misbehave with customers--Sally (Vera Vitali, daughter of longtime Stanley Kubrick associate Leon Vitali) is hanged by Frank's sheriff brother (Frederick Schmidt) after she kills a man who was attempting to rape young Joanna; and Elizabeth (Carla Juri) is subjected to eye-for-an-eye justice after she bites off the tongue of an abusive customer. A mysterious stranger (Pearce again) buys out the Inferno for the night. Joanna clearly recognizes him and things escalate when he chooses her over the other women, with the intent of making her pay for past misdeeds.

The third chapter is "Genesis," and it's here where BRIMSTONE's story threads begin to coalesce. To go into specifics beyond that would mean significant spoilers, but the events that unfold will also involve outlaws Samuel (Kit Harington of GAME OF THRONES) and Wolf (Jack Roth, Tim's lookalike son) and Samuel's attempt to rescue young Joanna (Jones makes a return appearance) from a physically and psychologically abusive situation that claims the life of her mother (Carice Van Houten, another GAME OF THRONES cast member) in a frontier settlement of Dutch immigrants lorded over by...you guessed it...a younger Reverend. The fourth chapter, "Retribution," brings things full circle back to the present, with Liz, Sam, and Matthew on the run from the Reverend, who's hellbent on killing her family as part of his obsessive quest for vengeance against Liz. The monstrous Reverend grows increasingly diabolical as the chapters take BRIMSTONE further back in time, with Pearce creating what could go down as the most astonishingly repellent villain of 2017. Whether he's forcing women to wear a medieval headgear (sort of a like CPAP chastity belt) to keep their mouths silent or singing hymns as he's salivating over the opportunity to restrain and whip young Sam and "make her a woman," Pearce will make your skin crawl as the pedophile Reverend. He waxes rhapsodic about how "young girls carry the scent of innocence...older women smell different," and uses religion and his position as a man of God as a means of control and for justifying his own perversions, abetted and emboldened by a devoted and subservient congregation that looks the other way and lets it happen. When asked to explain his transgressions, he simply says "I can do whatever I want."

Pearce is matched by Fanning, doing career-best work thus far in a role that was originally intended for Mia Wasikowska (Robert Pattinson was cast as Samuel until he and Wasikowska backed out during pre-production). Playing most of the film mute, Fanning has to convey a lot with facial expressions and sign language, but she's quietly powerful in a difficult role that sees her dragged through a gauntlet of emotions from start to finish. Her scenes with young George provide the few moments of warmth and humanity in an otherwise unrelenting barrage of abuse, violence, and horror. BRIMSTONE isn't the easiest watch--few films have so bluntly put children in such traumatic circumstances involving everything from sexual abuse to forced mercy-killing--and it can be as oppressive as von Trier at his most misanthropic. It's the kind of film that you'll either find completely alienating and off-putting or be drawn in and challenged by its frequent instances of brilliance, its fascinating story structure, and its willingness to go to some uncomfortably dark places. It's interesting to note that frequent Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini (PHENOMENA, DEMONS, OPERA) is credited as "story consultant." Perhaps he came up with the memorable bit where Pearce's Reverend disembowels a guy and strangles him with his own intestines. Feel what you will about BRIMSTONE, but it gets your attention and provokes a reaction.

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