Proving that the Western is anything but dead, two very different examples of the genre just dropped on home video. Brimstone (2016) was written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Martin Koolhoven, his first feature since 2008’s excellent WWII drama Winter in Wartime. The writer and director of In a Valley of Violence (also ’16) is American Ti West, so it’s not too surprising his take on the genre is more traditional than that of his European counterpart. Since all of West’s previous films were mostly well-received horror thrillers (House of the Dead, The Innkeepers), his decision to switch genres is interesting enough in itself.
Clocking in at nearly two-and-a-half hours and the most expensive Dutch film since Paul Verhoeven’s WWII thriller Black Book (’06), Koolhoven’s film is ambitious both in sweep and theme. Though the cast are all English speakers, the crew and locations are European—with Germany, Spain, Austria and Hungary subbing convincingly for deserts and snowy mountains of the American West. The plot’s core is vengeance (like much of the world’s literature), but its presentation is anything but typical.
After a brief prelude which, chronologically, is actually the end of the film, the narrative is divided into four parts—Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution. The first three sections move backward in terms of events, setting up the aptly named final section, which brings us back to the beginning. It’s complicated, but not confusing or artificial. The consequences of human actions are shown first, and only then their causes.
Australian Guy Pearce, using a Dutch accent, plays a character known only as the Reverend, whose message to his small congregation and anyone else concerned is hellfire and damnation. Brutal to his wife Anna (Carice van Houten, Melisandre in Game of Thrones), he has more than paternal designs on his preteen daughter Joanna (the younger version played by Emilia Jones, the adult by Dakota Fanning). Kit Harrington (Jon Snow, Game of Thrones) has a small but very effective role in Segment Three as an outlaw who finds sanctuary in the wrong place. There are many other important characters in this witches’ brew of violence, damnation, rape and redemption, but the less you know about the plot, the more surprising will be its development.
As the title suggests, Brimstone is exceedingly grim and brutal, but ultimately character-driven. Admittedly influenced by Robert Mitchum’s homicidal preacher Harry in Night of the Hunter, the Reverend is evil incarnate. The women in the film, headlined effectively by Fanning, are victims of the nearly wholesale male brutality in and outside the family, rising above it (if they can) at their own peril. The same goes for the few positive male figures in the film.
A sizable hit in Europe, Brimstone found less favor with the few mainstream U.S. critics who saw it, most put off by what they deemed “exploitative” violence and sex and the “overly self-conscious” narrative technique. Such a view seems to me both narrow-minded and pedestrian. Whatever the case, Brimstone is gorgeously photographed and well-acted—a complex, intelligent and unflinching moral allegory about the immanence of evil and the courage of resistance.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. No one rides off into the sunset in this.
In a Valley of Violence, on the other hand and despite its title, is almost a comedy. There’s a heck of a shootout at the end and random acts of violence throughout, but this Western is more like what we homegrown types have come to expect; it’s even an homage of sorts by writer/director West to the cowboy hero.
Like John Wayne’s iconic Hondo, lone gunman Paul (Ethan Hawke) travels the West with his dog. A veteran of the Civil War’s brutality, he wants only to be left alone with his guilt. Invariably, though, he’s forced to resort to his gun.
Paul’s troubles surface in Denton, a one-horse town where he runs afoul of the marshal’s son, worthless thug Gilly (James Ransone) and his shiftless pals. After setting them straight, Paul is confronted by the marshal (John Travolta with a prosthetic leg, in the film’s best performance) who suggests the drifter be on his way. Happy to avoid any more trouble, Paul readily complies ... but, of course, the movie’s only halfway through, and Gilly now has a grudge.
Hawke is OK in this, but it’s hard to believe he’s a seasoned killer. The dog is straight out of Disney, lovable and cute. He wouldn’t have lasted a minute with John Wayne. Taissa Farmiga and especially Karen Gillan (Amy, Dr. Who) are woefully miscast as sisters, respective love interests for the hero and the villain. Travolta, as the grizzled crippled marshal, steals the show, but with a very limited bit of screen time.
In a Valley of Violence is fun enough, though scarcely memorable. Brimstone is disturbing and original, not likely to be forgotten.