The Curmudgeon

YOU'LL COME FOR THE CURSES. YOU'LL STAY FOR THE MUDGEONRY.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Brimstone

Martin Koolhoven 2016

A magnificently grim revenge Western, Brimstone gains rather more than suspense from its organisation into four non-chronological chapters. The first three are called Revelation, Exodus and Genesis, in that order; the last, which wraps up and concludes the foregoing, is Retribution. The film's mute protagonist, its snowbound final act and bleak payoff recall Sergio Corbucci's outstanding The Great Silence, but the lack of Tarantinesque winking and gurning is one of Brimstone's few mercies.

In the community where a mute midwife has made a happy marriage, a self-styled hunting-dog of the Divinity turns up and systematically tears the woman's life to pieces. His reasons for doing so become clear in the next two chapters, which inventively skew traditional Western tropes. Prostitution is as hard and messy as mining, but for some reason workers in the former profession lack the rights and privileges accruing to those in the latter; while set-piece duels in the street are as rigged against the honourable as Creation itself. The heroine's involvement with the preacher is a tale of child abuse, psychological and physical torture, wife-beating, witch-hunting, and worse; all of which, as the screenplay makes clear, are thoroughly Christian pastimes blessed with unequivocal Scriptural sanction.

As the black-coated Bible-dog, Guy Pearce ranges impressively between dour sanctimony, inquisitorial viciousness and hysterical zeal. Whether he is at any point actually supernatural is a question the film leaves open: the miscarriage which begins the midwife's tribulations might be the result of his laying-on of hands, or it might be a natural misfortune of which he takes canny advantage. There are equally fine performances by those playing the heroine: Emilia Jones and (redeeming any number of soulful-infant roles) Dakota Fanning, who spends most of her screen time without a voice.

The preacher's own final words demonstrate his thorough understanding of the nature of Hell; and although the heroine finally escapes the hound's pursuit, Hell's originator exacts retribution by sending some virtuous vultures at the end. There is one way out, but a hard one, and an unforgivable offence to the Author of all the world's suffering. Any sense of the heroine's triumph is undercut by the sunlit, self-centred musings of her daughter, a cheery breeder of more souls to perpetuate the misery: Hell on earth, resurrected from generation unto generation.

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