The western 'Brimstone's' depiction of hell on Earth is a trial in itself

With “Brimstone,” a story of innocence and evil in the Wild West, filmmaker Martin Koolhoven has created a kind of endurance test. It’s not a matter of the movie’s length — even at 2½ hours, the handsomely shot drama is well-structured and moves with assurance. The American frontier’s raw beauty pulses with mystery and dread, and before the harrowing tale finally repels us, it draws us in with the powerfully expressive face of Dakota Fanning, as a mute midwife, hunted and hyper-alert.

But whatever the writer-director may have set out to say about this resourceful survivor or the plight of women in brutally benighted times, in the end, he seems more intent on putting the audience through the wringer along with his characters. The film’s acts of cruelty and gruesome violence accumulate like a finely tuned torment. Ultimately, Koolhoven is asking not how Fanning’s Liz can persevere, but how much a viewer can take.

The on-screen tormentor is a character known only as the Reverend (Guy Pearce), who delivers sermons about the promised land with a deranged ferocity and a Dutch accent. Tracking Liz across the West (the film was shot in Germany, Spain, Austria and Hungary), he tells her at one point, “I’m here to punish you,” and at another, “I am here to save you.” For the Reverend, they’re one and the same.

Even before the scarred preacher arrives at the remote outpost where Liz is building a new life, she senses danger in the air, a stirring in the virgin woods that no one else can see. How Liz and the Reverend are connected and why — soon after his arrival, they each go to the other’s house in the middle of the night, armed with a knife — is gradually revealed.

Dividing his story into chapters (“Exodus,” “Genesis,” “Retribution”), Koolhoven moves back through time to trace the ordeals of the teenage Liz (Emilia Jones), from the horror show of her home life, complete with Bruegel’s rendering of hell on her bedroom wall, to a mining-town brothel named, aptly, Frank’s Inferno. Her first glimpse of a world beyond her oppressive upbringing arrives in the form of a compassionate thief (Kit Harington, of “Game of Thrones”).

Later, a couple of prostitutes (Vera Vitali and Carla Juri) take the teenager under their wing, their grit and defiance an eye-opening contrast to her mother, a crushed spirit played by a ghostly Carice van Houten. But in different ways, they all must pay for the sin of being female.

The role of misogyny within organized religion is a topic worth exploring; here it’s a driving force that lapses into an afterthought. Certain strains of Good Book piousness are just an excuse for very bad behavior — ask Robert Mitchum’s itinerant man of God in “The Night of the Hunter,” an obvious antecedent.

The Reverend, played with unnerving Calvinist fervor by Pearce, enters the story as a riddle, a monster whose dimensions shift from the supernatural to the psychological. His attempts to insinuate himself into the household that Liz shares with her husband (William Houston), stepson (Jack Hollington) and young daughter (Ivy George) are truly cringe-inducing — to the point where, late in the proceedings, an exchange between the Reverend and the 8-year-old girl makes you think about the actors and how they got through it.

Given that Koolhoven’s previous feature, the World War II coming-of-age drama “Winter in Wartime,” was staid and conventional, his penchant here for inventive barbarity is surprising. He stages an early, potent scene involving a breech birth — tellingly, it takes place in the aisle of a church — with welcome discretion. Soon, though, the story’s progress is marked by slaughter, evisceration and mutilation. The suffering is apportioned to animals and humans alike, perhaps a reminder of our place in the universe. But the way Koolhoven refuses to look away from slow deaths and instant atrocities only drains the story of any supposed higher purpose.

As the sequences that bookend Liz’s story make clear, “Brimstone” is meant to celebrate a “warrior.” Yet however heroic a figure Fanning’s Liz may be, however much this fine actress makes us feel her terror and determination, any sense of triumph is steadily, grindingly undone. A film that ostensibly aims to expose the subjugation of women spends an awful lot of time hurting and humiliating them.

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‘Brimstone’

Rating: R, for brutal bloody violence, strong sexual content including disturbing behavior, graphic nudity and language

Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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