BRIMSTONE (Cert. 18), as the opening title’s graphics depict it, is a disturbing film pondering whether the Cross symbolises continuing punishment of us or forgiveness. Some critics’ dismissal of the picture as a Western variant of slasher movies or torture porn fails to perceive a parable about love and loss.
It is split into chapters with names such as Genesis, Exodus, etc., but not necessarily in the right biblical order. In the first sequence, we wonder why Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young wife, instinctively recoils at the arrival of the Reverend (Guy Pearce). Surely it can’t be his doom-laden footsteps or vivid facial scar (although some Anglican congregations have been known to take an instant dislike to new clergy just as superficially).
It turns out, when the next chapter moves retrospectively, that there is definitely history to take into account, especially regarding Pearce’s scary character. Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Spain double up for the Wild West in this rambling tale. It may be the New World of Great Awakenings, but we witness tired old European manifestations of brutality, avarice, and lust, alongside unselfishness, care, and general good humour. You can change your sky but not your soul, it would seem.
Martin Koolhoven who wrote and directed the piece was brought up in Holland a Protestant. And, while the Reverend’s brand of faith relies on scourging, incest, and murder, one is never lead to believe that all Christians behave in that way.
We don’t know why the preacher’s theology is so cruel. He relies almost exclusively on the Old Testament in justifying his actions. “Violence cleanses evil. It purifies the heart” (Proverbs 20.30). We’re treated to plenty of this, mainly on women, by way of tongue amputations, rape, or being fitted with a scold’s bridle to muzzle dissent. Koolhoven’s attempts to demonstrate the effects of religion and misogyny on feminist aspirations are somewhat undermined by a surfeit of lingering shots on suffering females, some still little children.
The film is far more powerful when working through metaphor. When Liz is rendered physically speechless she is, in effect, but the latest in a long line of silenced women. There are, though few and far between, men — father, husband, wounded stranger — of a gentler disposition.
We learn that, because the Reverend considers himself beyond salvation, he can do terrible things. Hot on God’s punishment, curiously he lacks any notion of divine forgiveness. There’s a touch of omniscience about him. Rather like Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, he always knows where to find his prey. As the darkness deepens, his leitmotif is singing the opening lines of “Abide with me” to victims. In church, the congregation even manages a pitch-perfect start to it without the aid of an opening note.
Liz is presented as a warrior never entirely overcome by the humiliations and sufferings that she experiences, whereas the Reverend, outwardly powerful, is in excruciating pain through an absence of love. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s dictum seems apt: those who have a why to live can bear with almost any how. The Reverend hasn’t one. Liz has.
On release from today.