Liz (Dakota Fanning) is a midwife in the Old West, though as she is mute after her tongue was cut out, she relies on her young daughter Sam (Ivy George) to give instructions to her patients, which she relays by sign language. She is married to Eli (William Houston), who has a son of his own from a previous marriage that ended when his last wife died, so for Liz this marriage is one of convenience as it lends her a respectability and gives her a roof over her head that she would not have received if she had been a single woman. However, one Sunday morning she attends church with the rest of the townsfolk and is horrified to see who the new preacher is: someone unwelcome from her past.
He is played by Guy Pearce with scar makeup, and as the film progresses, both forward and backwards, we find out how he got those marks and also the marks he doles out to others, because The Reverend as he is known is not a nice man at all. Indeed, he was a religious maniac who manages to suppress that mania until he is alone with one of his flock, whereupon if he has a personal point to make he will let out his insanity in the most dreadful manner possible, and Brimstone was criticised for its violence, much of it inflicted upon women and children, in some quarters where the audience and critics alike were expecting a more traditional Western.
Or even a Quentin Tarantino-style Western, which this was not, being more stately than that and less indulgent of the cultural references. Both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight had proposed social and political conclusions to their violence, but with this it was more arthouse, and in its way curiously fable-like, as Charles Laughton's cult classic The Night of the Hunter had evidently been an influence writer and director Martin Koolhoven had been happy to court. Certainly the chief antagonist as a murderous holy man was a strong element both shared, though this lacked the saviour figure as poor Liz is ultimately forced to do her own saving of both herself and her child.
Divided into four chapters with suitably portentous, one-word titles, there was a lot Old Testament about how morals are applied to both the evil and noble characters, with the goodies suffering, if anything, far more than the baddies since they can tell what is decent and true in this harsh world, and this insight makes them lament how their experiences there lag behind what they know about the best of humanity. The Reverend, no matter his learning in the scripture, has no concept of how his actions can be so damaging for believing he has God on his side excuses his brutality and perversions in his own mind, believing he is fully justified to abuse women and children alike because God told him to. We've seen this the world over, no matter what the faith, and you don't even have to be religious to suffer under these delusions.
With that in mind, Brimstone could be regarded as an uncompromising critique of life's ardent conservatives and how they would be hypocrites in the view of Koolhoven, who took the best part of seven years to bring this particular vision to the screen in a manner he approved of (two years of that was securing the funding - don't let anyone tell you movie making is easy). It was well seen his opinions on the global community were being brought out in his work, and that is either going to appeal to you or it isn't: you could completely understand why not only would this not be everyone's cup of tea, but also why it would elicit such anger in response. Add to that its humourless, self-important qualities, and there were two other reasons to take against it, yet it had such an uncompromising drive about it that the more receptive may find themselves admiring what was obviously precisely what its creator wanted to concoct. With a cast who were on his wavelength throughout, this was a stark, Gothic Western that kept the genre alive in insistent style. Music by Junkie XL.
[Thunderbird's Blu-ray features loads of interviews with cast and director as extras.]