As a lascivious man of the cloth in Brimstone, a rigorously unpleasant revisionist Western, Guy Pearce resembles a cross between Robert Mitchum's sinister preacher in The Night of the Hunter and Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. He's a figure of Old Testament wrath, an almost supernatural being who shapes and symbolizes this new world, mainly by committing atrocities under the banner of Protestant righteousness. As with Mitchum, his religious stature grants him the legitimacy to commit violence and sin, but he's not quite the same petty charlatan, grasping for a big score. He means what he says.
Over the course of a portentous 149 minutes, director Martin Koolhoven (Winter in Wartime), a Dutchman making his English-language debut, advances a damning vision of the American experiment and the original sins that defined it. Pearce's unnamed character, his accent still thickly European, reveals the lie of America as a haven of religious freedom, where faith could be practiced free of persecution. Its true legacy, Koolhoven implies, is as a home for false prophets, each spreading the gospel as a cover for unchecked misogyny. This is how the West was won.
Though Koolhoven drives his point home with the merciless sting of Pearce's lash, Brimstone chooses to tell its ambitious, four-part story from the perspective of a young woman who both absorbs and fights his abuses. The first three parts unfold in reverse chronological order, starting with Liz (Dakota Fanning), a mute frontierswoman, running afoul of the new preacher (Pearce) who's electrified the village. The women in town turn to Liz to help deliver their babies, but she faces a quandary when a breach forces her to chose between saving the child or saving the life of the mother. The preacher believes that's God's choice to make, not hers, and takes steps to condemn Liz and destroy her family.
From there, the film flashes back to her adolescence and the series of events that led her from a homestead to a brothel called Frank's Inferno, where she's pushed into indentured servitude. There are narrative surprises stringing one part to the next, but their common purpose is to show Liz coming into womanhood under extreme hardship and attempting to leverage some control over her destiny. Through it all, Pearce's presence looms large even when he's not in the picture: As an architect of the New World in the 19th century, he's empowered himself to dictate social mores, especially when it comes to women. And he flexes his authority through sexual violence.
Brimstone is almost perversely uncommercial. On top of the running time, Koolhoven supports his bleak dirge on the American West with scenes of unsettling violence against women and children, including the severing of two tongues as a graphic illustration of female voices silenced. There are no moments of levity or transcendence, and Pearce's performance is stripped of the snake-oil charisma that made Mitchum such a seductive sinner. The chapter titles — "Revelation," "Exodus," "Genesis" — suggest the film's Biblical austerity, its commitment to plumbing the depths of human depravity and sadism. Pearce tells his congregation that Hell is worse than the mere flames the might imagine; Koolhoven does his level best to honor that sermon.
He succeeds to a point. Though Pearce's character drives the action, the true center of Brimstone is Fanning, who's typically superb as a woman who speaks through her eyes and her actions, and summons dogged courage in the bleakest of circumstances. (The first chapter, featuring Liz's young daughter as her constant companion and translator, recalls Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin in The Piano.) The tricky chronology, too, pays off in a series of clever little twists that add depth to Liz's backstory and persistently raises the stakes in her confrontation with the preacher. Koolhoven posits their conflict as a battle for the soul of America.
After a while, however, Koolhoven's inability to modulate the action with wit or even minor shifts in tone makes Brimstone an oppressive grind. Though the film ostensibly aligns itself with Liz and the other women being victimized, it winds up channeling the preacher in its formal severity and sadistic zeal. Koolhoven has made a feminist Western of robust masculinity, and that contradiction erodes its authority — not unlike the Bible-thumper who doesn't practice what he preaches.