Though it’s not mentioned in the article about male directors tackling rape narratives that I linked to in the Una review, the last film I saw at TIFF is another instance of a man directing a female protagonist in a rape narrative, and that is Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone. Unlike Una, which is deliberately structured to refute the defense of rapists, Brimstone does have some undermining problems brought on by the choices of its male director. (Maybe the question isn’t “should men direct rape narratives”, but “why do so many men want to direct rape narratives?”)
Koolhoven, whose international breakout film was the World War II drama Winter in Wartime, writes and directs Brimstone, an expansive, grandiose Western that clocks in at a burdensome two and a half hours. The story centers on a woman known as Liz but whose real name is Joanna, and the movie is divided into four parts recounting her history with a violent, abusive reverend. Liz/Joanna is played as an adult by Dakota Fanning and as a child by Emilia Jones (High-Rise), and The Reverend by Guy Pearce. All three give stellar performances—it’s been a while since Fanning has been this good.
Brimstone starts out really strong, and the first “chapter”, Revelation, could stand on its own as a short film. We meet Liz (Fanning) as a grown woman with a young daughter and a whiny step-son, and she has an older husband (Eli Houston, Clash of the Titans), but their affection is clearly mutual. Liz is the midwife in a small mountain town, and is also mute. At first, she’s a beloved member of her community, but upon the arrival of a new reverend, and the subsequent death of a baby she’s attempting to deliver, the townsfolk quickly turn against her, and her life is plunged into violence.
The film then rewinds and we meet Joanna (Jones), sold into sexual slavery at a brothel in some sh*thole. This is where Brimstone starts going off the rails, as female exploitation and suffering takes center stage. In the first segment, the battle between Liz and The Reverend is so mysterious it could be supernatural, but as we begin grounding their history and learning how Joanna became the mute Liz, the repetitive nature of the graphic violence starts to wear on the story.
Liz/Joanna is a great character, but it gets hard to remain focused on her when we have to watch two hangings, four whippings—including the whipping of a child—countless stabbings and shootings, a close-up of a body obliterated by fire, and one guy choked out by his own guts. It’s A LOT to take. And that’s not even getting into the fact that the plot revolves around incest and a sadistic father who believes it’s his God-given right to marry his daughter. “Sadistic” is, in fact, the word I would use to describe Brimstone.
This is not a total loss, though. Koolhoven has a great eye and the film is gorgeous to look at, there are all those great performances plus a surprisingly good turn by Kit Harington as an outlaw, and the score from Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) is aces. It’s just that you have to wade through so much sh*t to get to the good stuff, and at two and a half hours, it’s just too much. Brimstone masquerades as religious allegory, but really it’s just good ol’ fashioned exploitative revenge porn.