Zeitgeist-watchers might have noticed that there’s been a spate of gothic-looking Westerns lately – The Hateful 8, Bone Tomahawk, The Keeping Room, The Salvation. Also, and this may well be keyed directly into the political mood of the mid-2010s, a run of films adopt the traditional gothic narrative of an imperilled heroine and stress the way women are trapped in primitive situations by small-minded, hypocritical, self-justifying, monstrous men. The first key film of the Trump era may be 10 Cloverfield Lane, in which the intelligent woman has to fight the domineering oaf who claims to know what’s right for her … but Brimstone, an epic-length horror-western from Dutch writer-director Martin Koolvaven slots right in there, as a tough but vulnerable child-woman flees through four chapters (with Biblical titles like ‘Revelation’ and ‘Exodus’) from a patriarch who believes God has given him license to own her in every imaginable way and incidentally do terrible things to anyone who gets close enough to intervene.
It’s a gruelling watch, with the few moments of hope and triumph immediately trumped by terrible injustices, but it’s undeniably an effective historical dystopia … successive chapters set in a Deadwood-style mining town whorehouse where enslaved girls are hanged or mutilated if they defend themselves against brutal clients and a puritan community where the scold’s bridle, flagellation and child-rape are used to keep women in their place show that across the range, the place of women out West is equally oppressed, with the law in one case and the church in the other essentially functioning as conspiracies to limit the options of all women. The first chapter (‘Revelation’) is a stranger-in-town story as Liz (Dakota Fanning), the tongueless wife of an older man (William Houston), is spooked by the arrival of the Reverend (Guy Pearce), an intense, scarred preacher who seems to have the power to make pregnant women miscarry by touch and turns Liz’s neighbours against her before making slasher movie incursions onto the isolated homestead. The Reverend is the sort of fiend who slowly disembowels a man and ties his victim up with his own intestines, and the episode ends with Liz fleeing the farm with her husband’s resentful son (Jack Hollington) and her own daughter Sam (Ivy George).
The next episodes go back in time, disorientingly , to fill in the backstory. In ‘Exodus’, Joanna (Emilia Jones) is found wandering in the desert by a Chinese covered wagon family whose patriarch sells her to brothel-keeper Frank (Paul Anderson), who runs a place called the Inferno and has an evil Sheriff brother (Frederick Schmidt) who not only hangs whores who dare to fight back but uses a long-gun fired from cover to ensure Frank wins any out-in-the-streets showdowns. In the Inferno, identities are blurred as Joanna matures to the point when Fanning takes over the role – but another Liz (Carla Juri) is the one who gets her tongue cut out as a punishment for biting a client. The Reverend, yet to acquire his scars, shows up and precipitates a climax which segues into the first sequence. ‘Genesis’ loops back further and finds Joanna as a junior member of a community where the Reverend is a horribly respected solid citizen – and her mother (Carice Van Houton) suffers for refusing to testify that she has personally been visited by the Lord. Old enough to look after the pigs on a farm where the Reverend does no work, Joanna looks after a pair of wounded outlaws (Kit Harington, laying on the accent a tad thick, Jack Roth, strikingly nasty) who are apparently waiting until they’ve healed enough to kill each other. Hangings (two, both hideous), ritual punishments, sexual threat and an all-pervasive, grinding oppression that would make a Lars von Trier film seem fluffy dominate.
The last act picks up from the flight into the wilderness – an absolutely stunning high-angle shot has the escapees’ wagon disappearing into a blizzard – and puts the heroine’s back against the wall as her monstrous pursuer, who seems even more evil now we know more about him, harries any chance she might have for escape, and indicates that he’s more than willing to transfer his cruelties to the next generation. The finale might well stretch the gloom too far, with a plot trap laid earlier coming back even when it seems Liz might finally have a shot at getting out of the shadow of the monster – but, at the end of this hard trail, there is at least a sense that someone’s strength to survive has been tested. Like the Danish The Salvation and the British Ravenous, this Euro-western (shot in Hungary, Spain, Austria and Germany) is relentlessly deconstructive in its approach to genre conventions … and, like the underrated The Keeping Room and the misfire Jane Got a Gun, it looks at the doings of cowboys, lawmen and outlaws from a guarded female perspective that gives the lie to many of the fantasies of freedom out West. Fanning (and Jones) are effective in the lead, and Pearce – a survivor of Ravenous – makes an outstanding, all-purpose commingling of malevolence and male violence. There are as many echoes of Wes Craven as Clint Eastwood in its blood and thunder approach, and the effect is definitely grand guignol – with an almost complete lack of humour – rather than artfilm angst. It doesn’t come within a country mile of subtlety, and like a lot of gothics there’s a streak of masochism in the heroine – especially considering what Joanna does to become Liz – that verges on collaboration with the oppressor and raises issues which will intrigue academics and outrage puritans of several varieties.