Political Film Review #536

Although the film was made in Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Spain, the only clues to where the plot is centered suggest the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855, which brought some men hungry for more than gold—extreme debasement of women. Brimstone, directed by Martin Koolhaven, is a fictional biopic of Liz (played by Dakota Fanning) in four parts, indicated by screen titles—I (Revelation), II (Exodus), III (Genesis), and IV (Retribution). Chronologically, III is the early life of Liz. II marks the time when Liz leaves the place of her birth for the goldmining town that resembles the set of the television series Gunsmoke (1955-1975) and then exits with a husband, The Reverend (Guy Pearce). Part I is Liz’s discovery of what she had to do to maintain her dignity. Part IV is when she meets her fate and passes along her memory to her daughter, who provides voiceovers to tie the pieces together. What the film exposes is not only the way in which the few women available were forced into prostitution but also suffered torture, even caning at a young age, at the hands of misogynous men. Two men dominate the scene—the saloon keeper Samuel (Kit Harrington) and The Reverend. Samuel cracks the whip at whores who do not follow “the rules.” The Reverend, a Dutch Protestant immigrant, pretends to have revelations from God in church but insists on sexual dominance at home to the extent of killing one wife in order to import a new house/sex slave, who turns out to be Liz. But some of the women in the film fight back, especially Liz. Brimstone clearly is a reminder of the day when women who married lost all their rights due to the legal practice of coverture. Another theme is the depiction of the American West as lawless, hinting that within American culture there is an extraordinary macho strain that continues in family life and politics, what Theodore Adorno called the “authoritarian personality,” which maintains strict discipline at home and votes for those who appear strong enough to break the rules to get things done. Brimstone was released at a time when filmviewers may find resonance in the story with the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. The Political Film Society has nominated Brimstone as best film on human rights of 2017. MH