Every Western that gets made feels like it could be the last one, and yet the genre refuses to ride off into the sunset. Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone doesn’t breathe new life into the oater, but the Dutch writer/director has clearly studied the gunslingers of yore. His film strives for a novelistic scope, with a nonlinear narrative broken into four chapters (the first is “Revelations,” in case the film’s title left any any doubts as to its seriousness or biblical bent) that slowly weaves a multigenerational yarn. The filmmaker isn’t as nimble as he is ambitious, though, and you’ll feel all 148 minutes of Brimstone‘s runtime — just maybe not in the way Koolhoven wants you to.
Dakota Fanning, who in recent years has been less visible than her younger sister Elle, compels as a mute midwife whose inability to speak is not, we soon learn, an accident of birth. As the road to hell is paved with good intentions, it only makes sense that the fire-and-this-movie’s-title action begins when her Liz is forced to choose between saving a mother-to-be and her baby; damned if you do, damned if you don’t indeed, but still she does what no one else in the room is capable of: makes a choice.
That doesn’t sit well with the newly arrived reverend (Guy Pearce), who feels Liz has sinned by making a decision that is the sole province of God. A sort of prodigal preacher, he’s also a ghost from our heroine’s past who knows ruinous secrets about her. Like The Proposition, another Western starring the Aussie actor, Brimstone is relentlessly grim in a manner suggesting that Koolhoven reread Blood Meridian and tasked himself with one-upping Cormac McCarthy. The instrument he has set to that task is the unnamed man of God, a Judge Holden–like entity whose Old Testament fury manifests in self-flagellation and increasingly over-the-top violence.
The reverend fancies himself a force of nature, but his inspiration is far from divine. “It isn’t the flames that make hell unbearable,” he says during a fateful scene. “It’s the absence of love.” Like most of his monologues, it’s an overwrought sermon for an audience of one — there’s never much evidence to suggest his posturing resonates with many in his congregation, and Pearce can’t make the words sing the way they need to.
That’s as much on the man who wrote those words as it is on the one reciting them, and Koolhoven seems to have given more thought to how his lines read on the page than how they might sound from actors’ mouths. (Brimstone at times plays like a miniseries edited for length, at once too short and too protracted.) With two middle chapters set in the past, Koolhoven clues us in to why it is his two lead characters’ conflict can only end one way and why it’s meant to matter so much. But his thorough, self-consciously expansive style is more momentum-killing than revelatory, and by the time Liz and the reverend’s backstories are filled in you may find yourself shifting in the pews and wishing the rapture would hurry up already.