‘Brimstone’ a sadistic Western to be endured, not enjoyed

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Guy Pearce stars as a violent Old West preacher in “Brimstone.” | MOMENTUM PICTURES

When people tell me they walked out of the theater or bailed on a VOD selection midway through a movie, they’re describing a foreign experience to me.

Obviously, the nature of my duties includes staying until the end of each and every movie — but even before I started seeing films professionally, going all the way back to childhood, I can’t think of a single instance in which I took off early.

Having said that…

I can understand why someone would give up on “Brimstone” long before this needlessly confusing, pretentious, grisly, nasty, sadistic, dour, ugly, overlong (2 hours, 28 minutes) Old West gore-fest reaches finally grinds to a halt.

Despite the talents of the Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven, a few strikingly effective scenes and the presence of familiar actors Guy Pearce, Dakota Fanning and a couple of “Game of Throners” in Kit Harington and Carice van Houten, “Brimstone” is so harsh, so convoluted and so in-your-face with the gruesome imagery, it’s almost as if Koolhoven is daring you to keep watching.

Set in the unforgiving West of the late 19th century, “Brimstone” is divided into four sections with grandiose, biblical titles: Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution. (It takes a while but eventually we realize events take place out of chronological order, which only serves to add to the headache-inducing nature of the viewing experience. This ain’t “Pulp Fiction” or even “The Hateful Eight.”)

Pearce plays the Reverend, a pure-evil monster of a man who finds ways to justify all manner of horrific behavior, including (but not limited to) rape, murder, incest, torture of humans and slaughter of animals. The Reverend cherry-picks verses from the Bible and delivers fire-and-you-know-what sermons to justify his actions, but as Pearce’s admittedly effective, chilling performance constantly reminds us, he’s no man of God, he’s the devil in religious clothing, manipulating and destroying souls for his own sadistic and sick satisfaction.

At one point the Reverend says the decision of who is to live and who is to die “belongs to God, and God only.” And then he goes back to deciding who lives and who dies.

Fanning plays Liz, a young woman married to a much older man (William Houston). She has a little girl and a stepson.

Liz is mute. (We’ll find out why, in horror movie fashion, later aka earlier in the film’s jumbled timeline.) The Reverend and Liz have a past — a terrible, terrible past. When the Reverend returns to Liz’s life, blood will be spilled and hate will rise.

Throughout the twisted journey, Kookhoven hammers us with references to heaven and hell and damnation, and the atrocities some men will commit in the name of their God. (The time-hopping story includes interludes at a whorehouse in a saloon called “Frank’s Inferno.”)

In one scene, a very young girl is flogged. Twice, women are mutilated in gruesome fashion. Another character is strangled with his own intestines. And let’s not even get into a description of the device the Reverend uses to literally lock up women.

Sporting disturbing facial scars and a creepy beard, clad in black, Pearce stirs it up with a strong performance. Fanning’s work is on a much smaller canvas, but she does a fine job of conveying Liz’s eternal struggles.

“Brimstone” is not a poorly made film, not by any stretch. It has the look and tone and assurance of a legitimate, unforgiving Old West parable.

It’s just that for all the visceral depictions of hatred and violence and human destruction, it feels as if the director is chasing his own tail and forgetting about making it all mean something.


Momentum Pictures presents a film written and directed by Martin Koolhoven. Rated R (for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity, and language). Running time: 148 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington and on demand.

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