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29 September 2017

Brimstone is a nasty film – yet strangely slick and clean

A sadistic and woebegone western with an over-developed sense of its own significance.

By Ryan Gilbey

Here’s something to make you feel old: Dakota Fanning, the screaming poppet from the 2005 War of the Worlds, is now mature enough to play a parent. Brimstone, the film in which she does so, is also likely to put a few extra lines on your forehead. This is a sadistic and woebegone western with an over-developed sense of its own significance, the sort of film where the local brothel is called the Inferno and the episodes are named after books of the Bible: Revelation, Genesis, and so on. It will be a forgiving audience that doesn’t respond with an exodus.

Fanning, a haunted-looking performer with a face as pale and round as a sacramental wafer, plays Liz, a mute midwife in a 19th century American town. Into the church sweeps a Dutch-immigrant preacher (Guy Pearce) who promises eternal damnation in the searing fires of Hell. “Now, let us join in singing ‘Abide with Me,’” he says merrily, as though handing over to Sally for the traffic.

He and Liz have history, to put it mildly. This we know from the extreme lengths to which he goes to pursue an unnamed grudge against her. Let’s just say that slaughtering all her sheep is the nicest thing he does. The question is how long we will have to wait to discover their connection.

I hope you haven’t got to be anywhere in a hurry because Martin Koolhoven’s film has delusions of box-set grandeur. We zoom back in time to clear up every last mystery: how Liz lost her voice, how the preacher got his Blofeld scar and where Kit Harington from Game of Thrones fits into it all.

Some films (The Godfather Part II and Memento are the most obvious examples) disrupt chronology to reveal meanings that would otherwise have remained latent. Others do so to allay the suspicion that, laid end to end conventionally, the scenes wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans. Can you guess which camp Brimstone falls into?

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The film is nasty – the whipping of a child counts almost as light relief – yet strangely slick and clean, with no feel for Frontier hardships. It also steals from superior movies; Jane Campion (The Piano) might have something to say about a film in which a mute, bonnet-wearing woman with a chatterbox daughter hurls herself from a raft into the depths of a river. And it veers, as self-important works often do, into the schlocky. Pearce, a versatile actor poorly used here, seems to realise as much in his final scenes when, following his many speeches about wolves in sheep’s clothing, he throws in the towel and starts howling at the moon.

There’s a wolf of a different sort in Michael Winterbottom’s semi-documentary about the north London indie-rock quartet Wolf Alice, a level-headed bunch not prone to any obvious Spinal Tap-isms, who take their name from Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. The film’s title, On the Road, should be interpreted as a bathetic allusion to another literary classic; there is no hint of Kerouac in this record of life on tour, with its soul-killing carousel of bus, soundcheck, local radio, gig, budget hotel and then bus again. But Winterbottom, whose early film career includes the 1995 serial-killer road movie Butterfly Kiss and who has enjoyed his biggest success with three series of The Trip, knows a thing or two about making the journey more interesting.

To this end, he takes his cue from Rude Boy, the 1980 film about The Clash, and sprinkles On the Road with fictional characters: the record company intern Estelle (Leah Harvey) and Joe (James McArdle), the roadie she falls in love with, who interact with the band and eventually steal the camera’s attention away from them. There is sex here, though admittedly not the whole 9 Songs, as well as rock’n’roll, but weirdly no drugs. This either makes Wolf Alice and their crew the world’s most abstemious touring outfit, or the film not so verité after all. But it’s truthful where it counts. A scene in which Estelle reads aloud every last date on the upcoming US tour which will steal Joe away from her and in all likelihood kill off their romance, is like watching heartache being measured out in spoonfuls. 

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