Between 1999 and 2008, the Dutch director Martin Koolhoven made eight feature films, none like any of the others. In 2005 he shot the multicultural rom-com Het schnitzelparadijs (Kitchen Paradise), about a Moroccan dishwasher and a blonde girl from a well-to-do family, back-to-back with Knetter (Bonkers), a comic drama about a nine-year-old girl dealing with her bipolar mother. The latter film, aimed at a young audience, owes its humour to the surprising actions of the mother during her manic periods. Het zuiden (South, 2004) about a woman ashamed of her breast prosthesis, was inspired by the self-restrictive rules of the Dogme95 manifesto1 whereas the colourful Suzy Q (1999) focussed on a dysfunctional family in the 1960s, in which both a very young Michiel Huisman and Carice van Houten made their feature debuts in leading roles. With the success of Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime, 2008), about a fourteen-year old boy who comes to the aid of a wounded British pilot in the snowbound landscape of Nazi-occupied Holland, Koolhoven had proved himself a prolific filmmaker. To take his ambitions to a higher level, his next project would have to be an English-language picture. Co-produced with money from eight different European countries, Koolhoven’s Brimstone finally had its premiere at the Venice film festival in 2016.2

Koolhoven is known as a film aficionado who, together with partner-in-cinephilia Ronald Simons, has since 2009 put on a monthly film programme, Cinema Egzotik, in which selected films, unduly underrated in canonical lists, are shown in a double bill.3 Koolhoven and Simons have a predilection for the work of the action movie director Walter Hill, the horror filmmaker John Carpenter, the giallo specialist Mario Bava (and son Lamberto), and for (spaghetti) westerns: Koolhoven’s list for Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll contains three films directed by Sergio Leone, among them Giù la testa (A Fistful of Dynamite, 1971).

However paradoxical it may seem, Koolhoven felt that Leone’s epic spaghetti-westerns were necessarily steeped in his own culture, that of Italian Catholicism, and without it they would not have had their worldwide appeal. Hence, Koolhoven was determined that Brimstone, though set in nineteenth-century America as befits the western genre, had to include specifically Dutch accents. It is an often overlooked historical fact that many settlers in America in that particular era were of Dutch descent, and Brimstone chronicles the influence of their Calvinist mentality upon the building of the American nation. The overall aim of this article is to pit Koolhoven’s film, punningly described as an ‘Edam’ (cheese) western on account of its inherently Calvinist rigour,4 against both American westerns and their sardonically humorous counterparts, the spaghetti westerns with their inbred Catholicism. I will explain how the past is depicted differently in these films (via flashbacks and a-chronological narration) and identify the repercussions of these varying depictions for the (absence of) feelings of guilt on the part of the protagonists. Finally, I will argue how certain formal devices in Brimstone problematize the Calvinist strict adherence to scripture as the Word of God.

Gallows Humour

The classical opening of a traditional western shows us the cowboy who, a dot against the horizon, rides on horseback into a small place. The camera is often positioned close to the townsfolk, who judge the arriving stranger by his appearance. “I bet you can shoot,” are about the first words the young boy Joey (Brandon de Wilde) says to the mysterious cowboy (Alan Ladd) in Shane (George Stevens, 1953). One brief glance suffices for the kid to adopt the steadfast belief that Shane is a tough sharpshooter, who is “on our side:’ As the film progresses, it becomes clear that the kid’s initial judgement is right: the stranger is a trustworthy hero. And with a supporter as dedicated as young Joey, it is no surprise that Shane demonstrates his skills. Each and every time the boy looks at him, the cowboy is invincible.5

It is at least as important for his character’s image that the cowboy does not disclose any details about his past. The cowboy has a past, of course, but either it provides him with a motive for vengeance (payback time for a dead family member) or it can be summed up in a laconic formulation, as in The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges, 1960) when some dyed-in-the-wool cowboys reflect upon their merits: you know bartenders by their first name, you have slept in five hundred rented rooms, you have eaten a thousand meals in hash houses. But this enumeration is meant to explain there is a reverse side to their existence: their lives are going round in circles. Without a home, without people who have a hold on you, and without specific prospects, the cowboy lives strictly in the present. The past is categorically irrelevant, I claim: a flashback narrated by the cowboy is a structural impossibility in the western.

The cowboy who disregards this convention risks disappearing into total anonymity, as befalls Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962). When the young attorney Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) has doubts about starting a political career because he thinks he has blood on his hands, Tom tells him in private that it was he and not Ransom who shot the villain from a dark alley. Thanks to this information, Ransom no longer has quibbles about going into politics. Tom’s flashback-confession is embedded within Ransom’s flashback-narration, which ends soon thereafter. There is a transition to a shot of Tom lying in a coffin, as if to confirm the rule that a cowboy can brag about his past only on the condition that he sacrifice his heroism.6 For that very reason, spectators must always be present during a gunfight, which preferably takes place in daylight, at “high noon,” for they have to spread the news about the cowboy’s actions: he was so cool, he was so quick. As soon as a cowboy starts to recount his heroic deeds himself, he is bound to bite the dust, as attested by the sorry fate of both English Bob (Richard Harris) and Sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) in Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992). The quiet William Munny (Clint Eastwood), on the contrary, beats his opponents, leaving behind an awestruck dime novelist (Saul Rubinek) as witness.

Brimstone

It was not evident to every (American) critic that the productive cycle of Italian westerns, peaking in the years between 1964 and 1973, could be regarded as a significant contribution to the genre.7 Will Wright described them in his influential study Six Guns and Society (1975) as irrelevant “fill-in exercises,” offering no more than an exaggeration of the conventions of American westerns.8 The greedy protagonists in Sergio Leone’s so-called Dollar trilogy are prepared to do anything for “a fistful of dollars.” Leone’s films are marked by the hyperbolic display of gratuitous violence, cynical wisecracking, an exuberant use of close-ups of faces, eyes, and guns as a slow rhythmic prelude to a face-off, invariably accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s ominous soundtrack.9 The protagonists in the trilogy, all played by Clint Eastwood, are unconcerned about how many corpses they leave behind, and the fact that the titular hero (Franco Nero) of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) carries a coffin (which contains a machine gun) with him underscores the gallows humour. The label ‘spaghetti’ was originally intended to be pejorative, used by those who considered the films’ total disrespect towards a moral view on life to be sick. For an increasing number of critics and fans, however, the label became a “term of endearment”.10 The films’ black humour offers the spectators something horrific to witness, but because the representation is so detached, they are not encouraged to sympathize with the misfortunes of the victims, whose fates are depicted in such a trivializing manner that one is more likely to laugh than be shocked.

Flashbacks

It should not surprise us that in settings as grotesque as these, the past is not a reservoir for faint memories or nostalgic musings. Telling about his younger days would be too “indiscreet,” to quote Colonel Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) in For a Few Dollars More (Sergio Leone, 1966). This raises the question how one transmits a memory if one does not speak about it. The riddle is solved by the most enigmatic character in Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), the taciturn outlaw nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson), after the instrument he plays. When bad guy Frank Morton (Henry Fonda) asks him who he is, Harmonica replies only by quoting a list of names of men who were “alive until they met you.” Frank, though he suspects that the outlaw is after him, knows that Harmonica will only tell him the motivation for his inconvenient presence “at the point of dying.” In their final face-off, the camera switches between Frank’s relatively restless and Harmonica’s impassive face. After an extreme close-up of Harmonica’s eyes, we suddenly have a flashback. A younger Frank puts a harmonica in the mouth of a boy who has to support his older brother standing on his shoulders, with a noose tied around his neck. When the younger boy collapses from fatigue, his brother is left hanging in the air and dies. So, many years ago, the villainous Frank made the teenager Harmonica an involuntary partner in the death of his own brother. In the scene following this flashback, Harmonica lethally wounds Frank during a showdown. Upon the latter’s question “Who are you?” he puts his harmonica in Frank’s mouth. After a close-up of Frank’s face, the young boy’s collapse from fatigue is repeated, but this time, the flashback scene is preceded and succeeded by close-ups of Frank’s face, suggesting that it has finally dawned on him whom he was dealing with. More important than the scene’s explanation of why Harmonica held a serious grudge against Frank is the revelation of this motive via the repetition of an act first performed years ago.11 Not only is the past event so traumatic that Harmonica cannot speak about the tragedy, but by transposing the flashback to his opponent through his namesake musical instrument, Harmonica is prevented from making the fatal error committed by Tom Doniphon. Both Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale) are (indirect) witnesses to Harmonica’s victory, whereas in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Tom, on account of his own verbal recounting of the past, has become a total nobody. The townsfolk still presume that Ransom shot the villain: Tom’s name is not even registered in the local archives.

The narrative of Koolhoven’s Brimstone is sandwiched between two voiceover commentaries; the one in the epilogue is the extended version of the prologue. The opening scene, preceding the first of four chapters, is entirely enigmatic, all the more so because the depicted event, which takes place partly underwater, lacks clear contours. At the end, we understand that a grown-up version of Sam (Naomi Battrick) remembers how her mother, living under the name of Liz Brundy (Dakota Fanning), jumped into the water from a raft with her hands tied. Liz thus determined her own fate, for she was about to be executed by a sheriff who had tracked her down after finding an old wanted poster. The sheriff persists in firing shots at the drowning woman, but a final underwater shot of a smiling Liz suggests that none of the bullets have struck her.

From a narratological as well as a generic perspective, it is remarkable that the film begins with a scene which is strictly speaking a flashback, but the event depicted in the flashback postdates all developments in the four subsequent chapters. Chronologically, the third chapter, called “Genesis,” comes first, the second chapter “Exodus” second, the first chapter “Revelation” third and the fourth chapter “Retribution” last, followed by the prologue, which largely overlaps with the epilogue. A gradual unfolding of events in reverse order is in itself not something new, but for a western it is highly uncommon. In Brimstone, we are introduced to a female character, described in the voiceover by her daughter as a “warrior, always in control” and the four chapters of the film, which span some fifteen years, explain why this qualification is correct. Step by step, by moving backwards in time, we come to realize why the woman changed her name from Joanna to Liz, why she has no tongue and why the arrival in the small community of The Reverend (Guy Pearce), introduced to us via heavy footsteps, gives her the creeps. The denouement at the end of chapter three reveals that Joanna (Emilia Jones) lost her virginity at the age of thirteen to The Reverend, who is also her father. A tracking shot forward that shows us stains of blood on the bedsheets suffices to expose this key moment. This event is so traumatic that it disqualifies Liz (even if she had a tongue) from possibly being a narrator in the film. What is more, in none of the chapters is there a mental image that can be attributed to her: she herself never reflects upon anything that has taken place in the past. The story itself moves backwards, but Liz does not. By building herself a new life, with a widower named Eli (William Houston), her stepson Matthew (Jack Hollington) and daughter Sam (Ivy George), Liz has left her identity as Joanna behind. The past can only come to haunt her in the form of an external force, embodied by The Reverend.

A western noir, such as Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947), shows the handicap that can result when one makes a too-thorough investigation into one’s past. Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) wants to make sense of his obscure childhood memories of spurred boots, shown to us in a series of brief, incoherent flashbacks. Once he understands their meaning, he is, instantly, no longer able to act.12 Given Jeb’s total paralysis after he is visited by a coherent flashback, the strategy in Brimstone is reversed. By withholding flashbacks focalized by Liz, Koolhoven’s film suggests that she can function properly (“always in control’) as the local midwife because she has successfully repressed her horrendous past. Though her husband realizes that something has piqued Liz when The Reverend arrives (which coincides with the failed delivery of a baby boy), he is not particularly worried. But he should have been, for soon thereafter The Reverend kills the unsuspecting Eli for the simple reason that “she loves you.”

Brimstone

Nonetheless, Brimstone has a brief flashback scene, but it is only part of the epilogue. A brief detour is necessary to understand how this flashback is embedded. Liz is wanted for a murder, though we have never seen her kill anyone. After running away from home, at the end of chapter three, she is at the beginning of chapter two picked up by Chinese people who sell her, under the name of Joanna, to Frank Blain (Paul Anderson), the owner of a saloon-brothel in the mining town of Bismuth. Joanna’s best friend Elizabeth (Carla Juri) has her tongue cut off by Frank as punishment for harassing a male client (Farren Morgan). She can no longer talk and no longer give blowjobs, as a doctor tells her, and in the company of Joanna, Elizabeth visits a marriage broker (Sam Louwyck), who gives her a photograph of a widower and his young son. In sign language, Elizabeth communicates to Joanna that before getting married, first she will kill Frank. During Elizabeth’s last night at the whorehouse, an anonymous man has paid a large sum of money, and every prostitute has to present herself. Joanna sees the man from above and is shocked to recognize The Reverend. She is the last to step down from the stairs, blindfolded, but The Reverend feels the birthmarks at the back of her neck, and then decides he only wants this one. In her room, when he takes out his whip, she screams for help, and Elizabeth immediately comes and cuts the man’s face with a knife, which explains The Reverend’s giant facial scar in chapter one. The Reverend overpowers Elizabeth and kills her. Thereupon Joanna takes the knife from Elizabeth’s breast and slits The Reverend’s throat. She sets Elizabeth’s corpse on fire, and when she cuts off her own tongue after the doctor has refused to do it for her, we understand her strategy: she is appropriating Elizabeth’s identity and will marry the widower.The flashback in the epilogue, which is preceded and succeeded by close-ups of Liz’s face, suggests whom she might have killed. Preceded by a shot of Liz, thinking back, we are in the brothel once again, right before Elizabeth comes to Joanna’s aid. Elizabeth stabs Frank in the belly with a knife, then the camera moves quickly with Elizabeth to the adjacent room where The Reverend was about to whip Joanna. Having changed her identity, Liz is accused of a crime she did not commit. It remains unclear, however, whether she has always known what had taken place, or if she has attempted to reconstruct what might have happened upon hearing that Frank was murdered. Recall that the flashback in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance set the record straight and the flashback in Once Upon a Time in the West transmitted a motive to the villain via the harmonica and its symbolism. Here in Brimstone, however, a certain ambiguity reigns: it could have happened this way, but we do not know whether the reconstruction is truthful, since Elizabeth is no longer alive to tell us. At least, Liz herself is not the woman who stabbed Frank Blain, but since she adopted the identity of Elizabeth, she is incriminated for killing him.

(Absence of) Feelings of Guilt

In the great majority of westerns, the cowboy is reluctant to share personal details about himself; he even shies away from the personal pronoun “I”’ If someone asks him why he will confront his rival, he can respond only with cordial silence or by uttering completely impersonal, meaningless phrases such as “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” or “There are things a man just cannot run away from,” as Ringo (John Wayne) says in Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). He only provides explanation by way of tautology, clearly implying that the way he regards the upcoming showdown is not personal but reflects an axiom of a cultural code, shared among men.13 This axiom bridges the gap between the letter of the law and a sense of justice, which legitimizes the arrogation of righteous action forbidden by the law. If a woman doubts the necessity of a gunfight, the cowboy’s response is simple: you cannot understand what it is to be a man. And if a man is performing the action that he is supposed to, why would he bother about a dead opponent? Since a western hardly ever presents us the cowboy’s perspective from ‘within,’ we can cherish the illusion that the classical cowboy is not burdened with events from his past.14 Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of the few cowboys to comment upon a shootout, says proactively, before Ransom can ask him whether he is perturbed by feelings of guilt, that the killing of the villain “was cold-blooded murder, but I can live with it.” Insofar as a cowboy might have particular emotions or second thoughts, he makes sure not to show them. Since the cowboy comes across as an inscrutable man, one tends to see him through the imagination: the less one knows about him and his background, the greater impression he is likely to make.

Whereas the justification for killing a man in an American western is usually that it benefits the community,15 the lack of any morality in a spaghetti western’s protagonist is evident from the sarcastic wordplay in the title of Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). Twice in Leone’s western, the label “the good” is printed on screen in a freeze-frame of Blondie (Clint Eastwood). We may wonder what justifies this label, for all the main characters are equally corrupt. Apparently, the freeze-frame at the very end enacts an ironic reversal of the order of cause and effect. Since it is customary that the good guy always wins in an American western, Blondie must be good because he has triumphed over his rivals. It in no way diminishes his goodness that he owes his victory to his use of vicious tricks. By presenting the cowboy’s moral stance as utterly random, Leone’s cinema exposes American heroism to ridicule.16 It goes without saying that such brutal heroes, lacking any moral compass, find any notion of a guilt complex alien to them.

Brimstone

The Reverend in Koolhoven’s Brimstone equals the spaghetti-western protagonists in ruthlessness, but his justification for violence is informed by his faith. When his wife refuses him sexual favours, he considers it his right to torture her; he then turns to his daughter, using a quote from the Apostle Paul on the passing of “the flower of her age” to claim possession over her. If only the rites of the ceremony of matrimony are fulfilled, their sexual union, which The Reverend defines as “pure love,” will be granted permission. The ceremony is interrupted by the wounded cowboy Samuel (Kit Harington), to whom Joanna had given shelter in the barn. For Joanna, who fancies this cowboy, this interruption is a blessing, signified by the excessive cascade of light that falls upon her, shown in a reverse shot as coming from behind Samuel, turning him into an angelic figure. The cowboy fails to pull the trigger, however, and, to Joanna’s despair ends up dead. The Reverend, so enraged that his daughter was about to choose “lust” over “love,” commits incest before the marriage rites were performed. This means that in his view he has become a doomed man who, in his own words, has given up the right to heaven. In the brothel he tells her, “Only you can save me, so that I can save you.” She has to yield her body to him as his wife, but because once again she turns against him, he knows they are both lost souls, “beyond salvation.” When he has tracked her down in chapter one, several years after the incident at Frank’s Inferno, he tells Liz’s daughter Sam that he has come to take her mother to where he has come from, meaning hell. Since he has nothing more to lose, he takes up the role of the Lord’s sheepdog to punish those lambs who have strayed from the path. Liz will persevere, however, and while she has turned The Reverend literally into a burning man, she listens to his final soliloquy, in which he claims that it is not the flames that make hell so terrible, but the “absence of love.”

Uncontrollable Imagination

It is a Catholic notion that since we, as human beings, are fallible, God is inclined to forgive anyone who shows repentance. In this light we have to consider Koolhoven’s remark that the spaghetti western is a Catholic genre, for it is a reassuring thought that even brutes who have committed horrible deeds can count on His mercy on the condition that they enter into dialogue with God at some point. Humans are burdened by the original sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but in principle anyone can be redeemed. By contrast, the settlers of Dutch descent in nineteenth-century America portrayed in Brimstone are Calvinist and adhere to the doctrine of predestination. Calvinist culture provokes a collective feeling of guilt, for it regards the human race as totally depraved, but even though everyone is a sinner, God has always-already decided that some are among the elect, while others are doomed to damnation. One’s life path is determined in advance, and one cannot influence its course. Since God’s judgement is inscrutable by definition, the logic of who is chosen and who will be condemned is inexplicable. Due to this determinism, it is “rather absurd to feel guilty about trespasses one has made.”17 A major concern for Calvinists is to be susceptible to signs which might reveal whether salvation will befall them, for they believe that atonement is limited: Christ died on the cross only for the elect.18 The settlers in Brimstone hang on to the idea that their coming to the pristine country of America can only mean that they are God’s “chosen people.” During the service shown in chapter three, The Reverend asks the churchgoers to tell how they received a calling from an angelic figure. He then uses their stories to publicly humiliate his wife Anna (Carice van Houten), for as yet she has had no visitation, which implies that she must be a reprobate among the community of the elect. It is part of the duty of The Reverend to chastise such an outcast. He is justified to use his whip and other devices without feeling any remorse.

Whereas the Madonna is a most honourable figure for Catholics, Calvinists focus exclusively on Jesus Christ. Mediated through His son, who is so fond of telling parables, God has revealed himself in words we can cope with. John Calvin, the sect’s founder, claimed that it is possible to encounter the risen Christ through the reading of scripture.19 If the Old Testament is not always that clear, due to its use of various figures of speech and visual images, Calvin argued, the New Testament excels in clarity of expression, enabling an “immediate experience of truth” for believers.20 Calvinists prefer word over image, because they presume that unlike pictures, texts can be crystal clear, as is attested by scripture. It is the task of clergymen associated with a rigorous doctrine like Calvinism to boil down the words in the Bible to a single, unambiguous message. In contrast to the presumed unequivocality of texts, images are not to be restricted to just one meaning. Because of their essential indeterminacy, images open up a space for ambiguity and leave room for interpretation by the viewer. An image always represents more than meets the eye, inviting the viewer to add meaning to it.

It is pretty evident that, in its content, Koolhoven’s Brimstone is critical of the Calvinist mentality. In positioning The Reverend as the incarnation of evil, the film shows how scripture is misused to endorse cruelties, particularly those inflicted on women. This stance, in itself, is not such a remarkable achievement, but Brimstone should receive accolades for the manner in which three formal choices underpin this critique. Insofar as critics and viewers complained about an abundance of gruesomeness in the film, one should first emphasize that the violence is usually represented obliquely. We know that Joanna cuts out her own tongue to transform herself into Liz, but when this is going on the camera shows the doctor’s face in close-up. We hear Elizabeth scream when Frank brutally removes her tongue, but what we see is a petrified Joanna, listening close by. When Eli asks for a mercy killing after The Reverend has cut open his belly off screen, the camera focuses upon the son Matthew, who fires the shot. The piercing of Eli’s father’s throat with a knife is mainly presented as a blur in the background, and comes into sharp focus only for a few frames. Even though one may argue that the implicit depictions of brutal violence do not diminish their impact upon the spectator because both the story and the audio track indicate plainly what is happening, the use of off-screen space and restricted focus is nonetheless at odds with Calvinist principles. The less explicit pictures are, the more they can unleash the “uncontrollable imagination,”21 and this uncontrollability is at the root of the Calvinist distrust of images.

Second, the frequent use of both out-of-focus shots and overhead shots contributes to the film’s anti-Calvinism as well. At the age of thirteen, Joanna had already encouraged her mother not to endure her severe husband’s humiliations. The device of having Joanna/Liz in sharp focus in many scenes, in a fuzzy environment all too often including The Reverend, indicates that she feels greatly uncomfortable. Because The Reverend is sometimes shown as a very indistinct presence in the background, at times it even seems that he has become a spectral apparition.22 Even more striking are the many overhead shots in Brimstone – of people going into church, of The Reverend amidst a field of flowers, of dead sheep, of a covered wagon in the snow – as if God were looking down upon the scene below. Though such a perspective might be acknowledging the presence of God, it is at the same time an ironic provocation, because of the Calvinist’s strict adherence to textuality. God has come down to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ but ultimately has only revealed himself through the scriptural record, in the form of words.23 It is a well-known truism that God cannot be represented visually, and neither can His point-of-view be conveyed.

Third, by using the framework of a western, and one with dark overtones bordering on horror, Koolhoven’s film inevitably brims with intertextual references. As a devoted cinephile it would hardly have been possible for him not to adopt influences from other films.

Brimstone

Brimstone’s suggestive allusions include: the mute character and the snowy landscape from Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence, Sergio Corbucci, 1966), the emphasis on menstrual blood and a burning house from Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976), some spillage of blood on fingers from The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), a male psychopath’s seductive play towards a sexually awakening fifteen-year old girl from Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991), a mute woman’s jump into the water from The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993), and the sheriff who secretly aids his brother by shooting the latter’s opponent in a showdown, much like the gunfight in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Recollections of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, 1971), set in a bordello in a chilly mining town, are never far off as well. Koolhoven did not want to make his references too obvious and avoided direct quotations ­– with one exception. The Reverend in Brimstone is clearly inspired by the diabolical priest (Robert Mitchum) from The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955): both men have the capacity to pop up unexpectedly and to disappear just as suddenly in a nerve-racking game of ‘now you see me, now you don’t,’ as if they were supernatural. In the beginning Liz looks up towards The Reverend at his pulpit; a few seconds later she looks again, but The Reverend is gone. The shots of Sam’s doll are reminiscent of the doll in Laughton’s film, but the most explicit resemblance is a shot of Liz waiting with a shotgun on a veranda, an unmistakable imitation of Night of the Hunter’s Rachel Cooper protecting the two runaway children from the priest and his depredations. That Rachel is played by Lilian Gish makes Dakota Fanning’s wordless performance in Brimstone come to recall the silent roles of Gish in the cinema of D.W. Griffith

To conclude, let me indicate how this relatively indirect intertextuality of Brimstone relates to the visual quotations which abound in Tarantino’s cinema. A first draft of the screenplay of Brimstone had made the film a tongue-in-cheek western, and regardless of the fact that Koolhoven appreciates Tarantino’s work, he did not aim to adopt a playful tone. Tarantino’s cinema tends to recycle a great variety of films ‘as a kind of nostalgia to the second degree,’ as Sharon Willis observes. It is not nostalgia for the 1950s or the 1970s as such, she argues, but rather for the way the films from these decades have circulated on television, radio, and via VHS. Hence, his cinema evokes the joyful memory of watching the films from these bygone years. By recycling tropes and passages from them into his own homages to these films, Tarantino makes these films contemporaneous. His cinematic universe becomes, in the words of Willis, “a world without history – a world where all culture is simultaneous, where movies only really watch other movies.”24

The references in Koolhoven’s Brimstone, on the contrary, are better grasped as an analogue to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-1980). This series of stills has been much discussed in terms of postmodernism, of camera/gaze, of debates on femininity and masquerade, but for the sake of my argument, I will restrict myself to the point that her photographs recreate scenes from 1940s melodramas, film noir or John Ford westerns, with Sherman invariably the female model. Thanks to the meticulously constructed setting, the pose of the model and her blank facial expression, the photos have the effect of making you think you’ve seen the movie, but, and here’s the catch, there is no ‘original’ of the picture. The stills make us realize that these genre films are so culturally ingrained that our imaginations already fill in the story of a non-existing film. The cinematic references in Brimstone function likewise: they trigger our imaginations to such an extent that we come to sense a celluloid reservoir, from The Night of the Hunter to The Piano, at the back of our minds. Recall that Calvinist iconophobia was grounded in the fear that the meaning of images can never be reduced to a single interpretation. A Calvinist would warn us that Brimstone, in its use references like an inkblot, pushes our imagination beyond our control (and those who appreciate the film are ‘beyond salvation’); a non-Calvinist might reply ironically that Brimstone makes us fortunate sinners.

Endnotes

  1. The Dogme 95 “Vow of Chastity” is to be found at http://www.dogme95.dk/the-vow-of-chastity/
  2. The film had been close to a failure after first Mia Wasikowska and then Robert Pattinson dropped out of the project. Brimstone would not have been made – and Koolhoven’s production company N279 would have gone bankrupt – had Guy Pearce’s confirmation that he would participate not reassured some sceptical film producers. Pearce was enthralled by Brimstone’s screenplay and he believed that Koolhoven’s film would allow him to relive his fond memories of his contribution to the Australian western The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005). Wasikowska was replaced by Dakota Fanning who had always been on Koolhoven’s wish list, but initially had been unavailable, whereas Kit Harington agreed to play Pattinson’s vacated role.
  3. Since 2012, Cinema Egzotik has been hosted by EYE Amsterdam, the most prestigious film institute in the Netherlands.
  4. Andrew Pulver mentioned the term “Edam western” in his review in The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/sep/03/brimstone-review-dakota-fanning-guy-pearce-venice-film-festival.
  5. See: Peter Verstraten, Screening Cowboys: Reading Masculinities in Westerns (Nijmegen: Vantilt, 1999), pp. 70-72.
  6. Ibid., pp. 96-104.
  7. In a time-span of ten years, about three hundred Italian westerns were made.
  8. Will Wright, Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), p. 14.
  9. Verstraten, p. 191
  10. Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. xi.
  11. Verstraten, pp. 194-95
  12. Ibid., p. 245
  13. Ibid., p. 105
  14. In those cases when we are confronted with a perspective from ‘within,’ as in Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1947), The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950), or High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), the cowboy or marshal turns out to be a guy with considerable psychological ballast.
  15. In Ford’s Stagecoach, sheriff Curly (George Bancroft), who officially has to prevent any lawlessness, tacitly agrees that Ringo should kill the three Plummer brothers, for the whole territory would be better off without them.
  16. Verstraten, pp. 197-99. No wonder that the spaghetti westerns have been described as Italy/Europe’s revenge, implicitly charging Americans with possessing an unjustified arrogance: you, Americans, are not as great as you think you are; though your country has only a brief history, you nonetheless blatantly shoot films set in antiquity in our Cinecittà studios, such as Quo Vadis (Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) and Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963).
  17. Marc De Kesel, ‘The Brain: A Nostalgic Dream: Some Notes on Neuroscience and the Problem of Modern Knowledge,’ in: Jan De Vos & Ed Pluth, Neuroscience and Critique: Exploring the Limits of the Neurological Turn (London, New York: Routledge, 2015), p. 15.
  18. Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 217.
  19. McGrath, p. 132. Calvin lived from 1509 to 1564.
  20. McGrath, p. 159
  21. Christopher Collins, Reading the Written Image: Verbal Play, Interpretation, and the Roots of Iconophobia (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991). p. 1
  22. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that The Reverend has died in the brothel and is now a walking dead, who has returned from hell. That’s why he can pop up from everywhere.
  23. McGrath, pp. 130-31.
  24. Sharon Willis, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997). p. 213.

About The Author

Peter Verstraten is Assistant Professor of Film and Literary Studies at Leiden University. He wrote, among other works, Film Narratology (University of Toronto Press, 2009) and Humour and Irony in Dutch Post-war Fiction Film (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). He also co-edited, with two directors-of-photography, Shooting Time: Cinematographers on Cinematography (2012).