In Brimstone, a Western that’s the English-language debut of Dutch director Martin Koolhoven, young actress Dakota Fanning amazes with her best performance yet, giving life to a character that since the first chapter (the film is divided in four) is revealed as unique.
Liz is a mute woman who, with the help of her little daughter, assists women in labor. While the setting is the Old American West, her life is relatively calm as she lives with her husband, stepson and daughter in a town that doesn’t seem to be as wild as one can expect. A lot changes, though, when a complicated labor forces the protagonist to save the baby or the mother -- she ends up keeping alive the latter -- something the husband in question won’t bear; grief, alcohol and a gun are not a safe combination.
The initial chapter also introduces a very mysterious character, the new reverend in town (played by a fearsome Guy Pearce) who immediately mixes religion with the stillbirth, blaming Liz for “playing God.” Fanning’s character, on the other hand, has been troubled since the arrival of the reverend and, in fact, accuses him of somehow causing the death of the baby. That’s how we have a striking beginning, in which perhaps there’s a supernatural element attached, as the almost omnipresent reverend torments the woman and her family, before the film opts for earthly and quite visceral violence, without leaving its mysterious tone.
Koolhoven, who also wrote the script, presents a nonlinear narrative that, through its second and third chapter, takes us little by little to the genesis of the relation between the mute lady and the reverend, before picking up the actions seen in the first part, certainly once everything is in perspective. Leaving aside the possibility of the spectral aspect, the chapters that explore the protagonist’s past firstly show the brutality of a much familiar Old West – in which the duels between gunmen as well as the activity in the brothels never stop – to later go in depth into the home of a family of European immigrants where religion reigns and, at the same time, justifies the most vile actions.
Brimstone displays, from a female point of view, the brutal side of patriarchy in the Wild West, accepted due to the rules imposed in a specific place in convenience, obviously, of the patriarch. Our protagonist, we learn, lived in two different homes – but in several aspects similar – before losing the ability to speak and getting married. Her mother (played by Game of Thrones’ Carice van Houten) and the group of prostitutes that eventually took her in a brothel were silenced by the respective patriarchs (Liz’s father and the brothel keeper) each time they tried to disobey the rules that put them in service of the “Lord” and the eager customer, respectively.
Thus the film exposes without reservation the sexual objectification of women, as Fanning’s character started to experience hell on earth once she had her first menstrual period. In the words of her father, she became a woman. The cowboy played by Kit Harington (Jon Snow in GoT) is the only man who helped Liz prior to her married life.
Finally, with a snowy scenery that inevitably recalls such old and modern Westerns as The Great Silence and The Hateful Eight, Liz runs away and tries to protect her natural descendant from that past marked by sexual and physical violence that has managed to return, bringing to the picture a touch of pure horror. Brimstone is undoubtedly one of the most powerful hybrids in recent memory.