“Brimstone” Review

brimstoneBrimstone [2017] – ★★★★

Brimstone is a highly controversial film produced by Dutch director Martin Koolhoven. The film’s non-linear plot follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young girl and then woman, who is plagued by the harassment and persecution of one – the Reverend (Guy Pearce). Unflinching in a way it portrays highly controversial topics and beautiful in its execution, this film will be deemed “shocking” and “distasteful” by some, while others will only see in the film extreme courage, originality and intelligence. Either way, this atmospheric film will have a big impact on the viewer, and the sensations it will provoke will not fade away any time soon. In that vein, although Brimstone was misunderstood and fiercely criticised in the US, the film has been the centre of praise in Europe, and rightly so.

Brimstone is divided into four chapters: Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution. The first three chapters are in reverse chronological order, while the final chapter tells the concluding story. In that way, we first see Liz as a mute woman who works as a midwife and lives with her husband, stepson and young daughter in a village. This first part may initially remind of The Piano (1993) (as there, there is also this young unfortunate mute woman with a young daughter fighting for her rights/life in a hostile setting), but viewers will be soon surprised to discover that this film is a thousand miles away from a Southern gothic romance they may be expecting. The second part reveals Liz’s earlier beginnings as she works in a brothel as a prostitute, and becomes a close friend to another woman working in the establishment. Here, the film is a child of Gangs of New York (2002) and perhaps some film from Tarantino or Campion, but, even here, nothing as yet hints at the sheer gruesomeness and inventiveness to follow. Then, the third chapter details Liz’s early adolescence, her family life with her mother and father on the farm, and the situation of her sheltering two wounded soldiers at some point; and, finally, the fourth chapter is about Liz’s “present” life as she continues to be persecuted by the Reverend. Here, in the final chapters, the audience finally discovers the true “meaning” of the film, but whatever heart-break or distress they have experienced in the progress, they would not recover from it easily. The usual tag describing this film simply says “a triumphant tale of powerful womanhood and resistance against a violent past that refuses to fade”, and, with all due respect, this is an understated way to describe this horrendous, but also powerful film.

The countries of northern Europe have always been noted for their unflinching, provocative cinematography, often producing filmmakers who are unafraid to venture into the unknown, and explore the societal, religious and moral taboos. Danish Lars Von Trier is the most well-known director working in that genre, but Dutch Paul Verhoeven, with his films Elle (2016) and Basic Instinct (1992), is also not too far behind. In that way, Martin Koolhoven is also among those filmmakers, but, in all honesty, he takes the crown in his “extreme” film-making line. In perspective, even Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) may seem a child’s play compared to Koolhoven’s Brimstone. In its disturbing content, the film must be somewhere between Funny Games U.S. (2007) and I Spit on Your Grave (2010). Koolhovel’s Brimstone is hard to watch and to stomach, containing a myriad of shockingly outrageous scenes. On top of that, from its very first scenes, the film creates this atmosphere of oppression, depression and total heart-wretchedness which defies anyone’s previous conceptions and beliefs.

From its very first scenes, the film creates this atmosphere of oppression, depression and total heart-wretchedness which defies anyone’s previous conceptions and beliefs.

Despite its outrageous material, however, the film’s plot is intriguing, thought-provoking and fascinating, and the style of delivery is enviable: controlled, with beautiful shots. Brimstone is unpredictable throughout, and has a number of Hitchcockian suspense moments, making it engrossing. The merit for this goes to the director who is also the script-writer here, and, in fact, Koolhoven had spent at least five years developing his story. Even though Koolhoven admits that many films inspired him to make Brimstone, such as Tarantino’s western-style violence in Django Unchained (2012) and the non-linear narrative in Nolan’s Memento (2000), there is a feeling that Brimstone still stands on its own two feet with its own shocking twists and turns. Besides, there are more layers to this film than initially meets the eye, and some details prove significant. For example, language is being used in the film to make a barrier between Liz and her entourage, on the one hand, and the Reverend, on the other. Liz communicates in sign language as she is mute – making a powerful contrast to the Reverend’s vocal orations in a church. Also, the Reverend in the film does not want to heart Dutch being spoken at home. In that sense, the Dutch language spoken by young Joanna (Liz) in the film is the way to separate her from her abusive father (again, as the sign language, it is a form of “secret” language). Interesting here is also the fact that Liz sacrifices her tongue to escape her past, another language-related detail in the film.


The acting in the film is also good, and the characters are memorable and well-written. Fanning, whose early films included War of the Worlds (2005) and The Runaways (2010), gives a brave performance of increasingly vulnerable Liz. As she plays a mute half of the film, her performance is non-vocal, but she still manages to express a lot with her eyes and facial expressions. This is clearly seen in the first part of the film, where she hears the voice of the Reverend in the church, and the audience is bewildered to see the sheer terror in her eyes as his voice fills the church. In fact, “innocence” is the very word to describe Fanning’s appearance, and she does become like a lamb hunted by a wolf (the Reverend), and the antagonistic chemistry/tension between Pearce and Fanning is memorable. It is also refreshing to see Fanning, because, before Brimstone, she has not been an actress associated with period dramas, an association which could have hurt this film. Previously, Mia Wasikowska was cast as Liz, but, thankfully, dropped out. After Wasikowska’s Jane Eyre (2011), Albert Nobbs (2011) and Madame Bovary (2014), her casting in this film could  have sent a wrong message to the audience because Brimstone is essentially a western-style thriller with horror elements. Guy Pearce (Memento) embodies the Reverend with zeal and passion, making his character a truly feared maniac: demonic, psychopathic, sadistic and merciless. 

The obvious criticism of this film is that it gets too brutal for anyone’s taste, especially near the end. Just when the audience may think that the director will have some mercy both on them and on the main heroine, Death knocks on the door yet again or something else, equally shocking, happens. The film is also too long, and does have this occasional tendency to slide into pretentiousness with overblown moments, and some unrealistic and “self-indulgent” scenes. The weakest link in the film is also its second chapter, where Koolhoven relies on too many western clichés to make it work, such as showing the usual westerns’ bad-mouthed spinsters and long-drawn, painful deaths.

Is Brimstone a good film? Undoubtedly. The film is masterfully executed: the suspenseful and thrilling tale is beautifully shot with some outstanding acting. Will I recommend watching it to everyone? Surprisingly, no. I would only recommend watching it if you are really curious about the plot, and not easily put off by graphic, disturbing, horrifying or heart-wrenching material. 



Arguably, behind the façade, Brimstone is a deep film, rich in symbolism and meaning. The film uses the legal defence of “necessity”, also a moral-grounds defence mentioned in the Bible, in a number of occasions in the film, making the viewing thought-provoking. For example, in the first part, Liz is unfairly accused of murder by a grieving father when she chooses to preserve a mother’s life instead of a child’s one in a difficult birth operation. Here, clearly, Liz is not at fault for the death of a new-born, because she has the moral/legal defence of necessity: she had to choose a life to save so as to avoid both the mother and child’s deaths. Also, nearer the end, one wounded soldier explains to Liz that he needed to kill another soldier because otherwise that soldier would have killed him at some point.

One very noticeable problem with this film’s plot is that Liz allows too many people to needlessly suffer and die for her. It is true that, in the film, Liz is portrayed as a pure “victim”, innocent of any crime, and trying to protect herself. However, it is also clear that by her numerous actions Liz endangers too many people’s lives, and, as a direct result of her other actions, some people end up dead. These seemingly thoughtless actions could have been avoided on her part to save lives, for example, she inadvertently prompts her mother to kill herself when she implies to her that she personally would not stand such a demonic behaviour from her father; later in the film, another brothel worker gets hanged trying to protect Liz from the abuse, which could have been avoided had Liz acted differently; and, most significantly, in the final part of the film, Liz did lead the Reverend all the way to the cabin of her other male relative, knowing that the Reverend will follow and is likely to murder (not to mention that both her husband and her stepson die horrible deaths as they are close to her). Taking this into account, Liz, as a character, may appear less sympathetic in the film.


13 Comments Add yours

  1. I’ve been wanting to watch this one for ages and your review wants me to do so even more! I’m just nervous – you’ve tagged it as “horror”…is it scary? Or rather a thriller?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      It is marketed as “thriller”, and it is, but there are some (for some, maybe, even many) instances in the film which are real scary.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. OK – thanks. So I’ll need to be in the right frame of mind. Pluck up some courage.


        1. dbmoviesblog says:

          I think you will need that, because I had to have some for this 🙂 I will be very interested to hear your verdict when you are through.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Will definitely let you know. You may need to give me some time…to get into that mode 😉


  2. This is one I won’t be watching. It sounds unique and interesting, in a sick sort of way, and I liked your review of it. I’m fascinated with “victims” and how they behave or if they wind up becoming the villain of the film (which it seems she didn’t but, somewhere along the way, you did lose some sympathy for her…interesting). Great post, anyway. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks very much! Regarding victimology, this film explores quite a few interesting things, and even though it does not go into the revenge mode, like e.g., Sleepers (1996), it portrays the victim’s experience well. I completely understand why people won’t watch it – I even recommend them not to. In all honesty, even I partly regret that I have watched it, despite the fact that I gave it such a high score. It is very well-made and acted, but it is also just harrowing.


  3. The justification for such crimes can also be found in there. Lots of Religious groups have come to the USA. I can really imagine a lot of this shit really happend in the early days in what is now the USA. The question is do you have to make a movie where you magnify this shit. I prefer a real western. I think the director is really capable of delivering that. My conclusion is that with this movie he did Overshoot.


    1. dbmoviesblog says:

      There is too much of everything in this film, I agree, especially violence. But this film –
      intentionally – is not akin to some sugar-coated Hollywood western. I honestly have not seen anything like this in my life, and the film makes a tremendous impression. It does its own brave (grotesque!) thing, and actually does it well, and if that side of the Atlantic does not like it – so be it.


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