Martin Koolhoven’s western-horror hybrid Brimstone is a crazy ambitious piece of work—his bleak tale of revenge is a sprawling epic that unfolds over the course many years, layering it with a unique storytelling twist. In it, wrongly accused of a crime she didn’t commit, a frontier woman turned fugitive is hunted by a vengeful preacher in the dangerous inferno of the old American West.
So I have say that Brimstone was nothing like I thought it would be; it certainly feels like a traditional western, wonderfully capturing how punishing the wild west was, complete with gunslingers, lawmen and and a crazed preacher. The film too was beautifully shot as Koolhoven often allows the landscape to do the talking, sweeping across a vast and stunning world. But it’s that same world in which our mute protagonist is on the run, so it always has us on our heels knowing that evil is just around the corner. And that’s where Brimstone finds its identity as it blends horror into the narrative. In other words, it’s a straight-up western with the atmosphere and unease of a horror film.
But it’s not what you might think, either. The horror isn’t supernatural or otherworldly, instead it’s subtle and grounded in realism that quietly drifts throughout the story. The horror of the film comes from a deranged preacher that’s been hunting this girl, following her wherever she goes and killing anyone that gets in the way. That’s the film’s hook, too, because he’s the wolf hunting the sheep and his motivations are kept tightly tucked away—why is he after her? It’s a question that the film asks from the very beginning and Koolhoven really lets it sink in; it’s here where the structure of the plot does something truly unique and it almost pays off.
Brimstone is told in reverse. It starts with the final act and works its way backwards, revealing more of the story along the way. By the time this epic tale comes to an end—nearly two-and-a-half hours later—it finally circles back to the very beginning and it’s truly an “oh shit” moment if there ever was one. It’s a lot of story to take in, especially after trying to piece it together in reverse, so when it comes full circle it’s really something special because now we finally have the full story. We know why he’s after her and what he wants… and ho-ly-shit.
The problem, however, is that because so much of the film is spent on the past, the final act becomes the least cohesive part of the entire story; Koolhoven simply ran out of road. And it’s a damn shame too because everything leading up to that point was this perfect whirlwind of love and revenge with just a hint of horror that was enough to make the film feel tense and different. Normally a misfire at the end doesn’t bother me that much, but after investing so much time with these characters and the story (remember, this movie is long) I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the ending. And I don’t just mean the last few minutes, I mean the entire final act. It just doesn’t mesh well with everything else that came before it; the best way I can describe it is that it felt rushed, like Koolhoven was desperately trying to wrap it up to keep it from being over 3 hours long. Damn.
That said, Brimstone is absolutely a journey well worth taking for Guy Pearce’s psychotic preacher alone. He’s this terrifying snake-like presence that slithers into the story with the quietness of a monster hiding under a bed. He’s also the crux of the film’s horror, meaning when he shows up, so too does the terror. But that’s not all this movie has to offer—the set pieces are often stunning, the cast is brilliant, and there’s a handful of some gnarly brutality that paints a menacing picture of the old American West.