Reverent and ridiculous in equal measure, Martin Koolhoven’s “Brimstone” is a wild pseudo-Western that trembles beneath the biblical weight of its comically grim story. Told with a steady tone that marries the anivine retribution of the Old Testament with the heightened slickness of a graphic novel, this gruesome carnival of debasement may be set in the lawless frontiers of 19th century America, but it might be more accurately located somewhere between Sodom and Gomorrah and “Sin City.” It’s the kind of movie in which an actor from “Game of Thrones” murders someone who’s taking a shit in an outhouse — the kind of movie in which a dying man, choking on a noose made out of his own intestines, still finds the spirit to tell his wife that he loves her.
Even after four discrete chapters (each of which is saddled with a subtitle like “Revelation” or “Exodus”) and 148 minutes of incest and murder, it’s hard to tell just how seriously Koolhoven takes himself. While ostensibly a proto-feminist empowerment tale about the horrors that women have suffered in the supposed pursuit of piety, “Brimstone” doesn’t hide how much fun it’s having during the sequence that’s set inside a pioneer town brothel, nor does it do anything to dissuade viewers from the idea that its villain — a black-eyed preacher played by Guy Pearce — has literally clawed his way out of hell.
Sometimes Koolhoven seems as though he shares the impish sense of humor that has always characterized the work of Lars von Trier, and sometimes it seems as though he’s never laughed in his life. That uncertainty, and the nagging desire to solve it, is at the troubled soul of what makes “Brimstone” such a strangely compelling experience. Without it, the film would neither be lucid enough to work as a moral epic, nor exciting enough to work as a Western.
Among the most expensive Dutch movies ever made (a luxury that Koolhoven earned for himself with a string of local hits like “Winter in Wartime” and “Happy Family”), “Brimstone” begins in a small village where a mute young woman called Liz (Dakota Fanning, never better) works as a midwife with the support of her much older husband. But that simple idyll is soured in a bad way when a badly scarred Reverend (Pearce) strolls into town, stepping up to the pulpit of the local church like he owns the place and raining verbal hellfire upon the petrified congregation.
No one in the crowd, however, is more scared than Liz, who recognizes that voice from her past and knows the bloodshed it portends. The Reverend, you see, is Liz’s father come to claim her. He might like to berate his flock about the dangers of false prophets and warn them of wolves in sheep’s clothing, but the Reverend doesn’t practice what he preaches. He wants to marry his daughter, and — like a sexually debased Anton Chigurh — he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.
A character actor whose talents have too often been obscured by his chiseled looks, Pearce hasn’t been this captivating since the days of “Ravenous” and “Memento.” In fact, the latter must have been a major touchstone for Koolhoven — not only does he cast that film’s star as another sociopath who twists his perception of the world to make sense of his sick desires, but the director also borrows its narrative device, unspooling “Brimstone” in reverse. While the first chapter sets up the final conflict between Liz and the Reverend and the final one loops around to see it play out, the two bits in between chronicle Liz’s childhood and her formative years in a whorehouse (but not in that order).
If that approach felt inextricable from the story Christopher Nolan was telling, its purpose in Koolhoven’s saga is decidedly less evident. There’s a certain sadistic pleasure to be had in waiting for these characters to suffer the mutilations they wear in later segments, but that queasy suspense isn’t enough to offset what the narrative structure does to dilute the Reverend’s infernal momentum. Likewise, the Old Testament feeling that comes with working our way back to Genesis isn’t enough to compensate for how flat the climactic showdown feels after spending nearly two hours away from the moments that lead up to it.
Still, the vast expanse in between has plenty of sights to see. There’s “Wetlands” star Carla Juri as a permed prostitute with a nose for trouble, and Kit Harrington pops up as a red-blooded cowboy who acts like a veritable saint compared to the rest of the men in this slaughterhouse. Carice van Houten (also on vacation from Westeros), plays the Reverend’s wife, whom he drags around in a barbaric face collar — Pearce and van Houten fell in love and had a child on the set, who is really going to hate being asked how his parents met.
If, for all of its godawful men, “Brimstone” has a hard time sewing its feminist fervor into anything more than a thin shawl over its bleak spectacle, this disturbingly watchable religious Western makes a solid case that hell is a place on Earth.
“Brimstone” opens in theaters on Friday, March 10.