Saturday 30 September 2017

"Brimstone" (Catholic Herald 28/09/17)

The Dutch Western Brimstone (*, 18, 148 mins) prompts many queries – several of the “why am I watching this?” variety – but foremost among them is the question of labelling. If Italy gave us the spaghetti Western, and Spain the paella Western, what do we call a Dutch Western? A stroopwafel Western? A pancake Western? Either would in fact fit, given the drab flatness of Martin Koolhoven’s film, an exercise in America- and religion-bashing that hammers its every point into resistible pulp. Not for Koolhoven the Brechtian provocations of Lars von Trier’s Dogville; Brimstone is all Trumpian overstatement, from that punishing running time to the director’s fondness for torching his sets in the wake of each atrocity.

That Koolhoven has religious hypocrisy in his sights can be inferred from our first glimpse of Guy Pearce’s The Reverend, a heavily accented scarface introduced banging on about false prophets in a manner that implies insider knowledge. Sure enough, after a nervy exchange of glances across the pews that establishes his fraught relationship with mute homesteader Liz (Dakota Fanning), he’s looming over her offspring, stringing up her man by his guts, and – to complete an unholy trinity – converting the family’s home into a blazing pyre. This, by the way, is just the first act: Koolhoven is so hellbent on earning the “operatic” tag bestowed upon Sergio Leone’s westerns he thinks nothing of going risibly over the top.

Opera, however, demands beauty, tragic or otherwise, where Brimstone expands to draw uglier and uglier pictures of its America. Acts two and three comprise a flashback to Liz’s time in a whorehouse whose proprietor thinks nothing of employing underage labour, and where we spot how much of the film is founded on gynaecological distress. Brimstone opens with a breach-birth pregnancy, proceeds through the slaying of an expectant flock (symbolism!), before arriving at a destination where women are routinely abused for money. Having two members of the Game of Thrones cast present feels like a giveaway: Koolhoven is trading in the same facile misogyny that show has used to ramp up its dramatic stakes.

The performers fall hostage to this directorial posturing, Fanning’s pale, quivering features deployed to signal purity in an alarmingly retrograde fashion, the skilled Pearce stuck playing a walking rape threat. Script logic dictates the Rev should reject his wife’s attentions to dwell upon Liz’s blossoming daughter – but why, then, does the camera join this pederast in peeping in at the child while she takes a bath? Unedifying and complicit as spectacle, Brimstone equally proves suspect as an artistic statement: each lipsmacking frame suggests Koolhoven would bite the hands off any HBO executive who offered him a cheque to cross the Atlantic. Before, most likely, setting fire to the room.

Brimstone is now playing in selected cinemas.

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