It doesn’t take long before “Brimstone” makes good on the promise — and threat — implicit in its title. A western horror show with an unrelenting Old and New Testament kick, it opens on an ambiguous scene that soon gives way to a world of terrors, many involving children and parents. In one scene, a fetal hand juts out of the womb; in another, a man is gutted and his entrails are draped over his still-breathing body. It’s a hard, ugly world, or so the Dutch writer and director Martin Koolhoven keeps insisting for 149 grueling minutes.
The carnage pushes you away (and wears you down), even as the genre, industrious cast, beautiful landscapes and stark, often striking visuals pull you in. Dakota Fanning plays Liz, a frontierswoman in America who lives on her family farm and serves as a midwife for the locals. A mute, Liz communicates with her husband and children with her expressive eyes and hand gestures, using her youngest as a conduit to the larger world. It looks like a sweet slice of heaven until the arrival of a new minister, a grim reaper with a jagged scar and bad vibe whom everyone calls the Reverend (Guy Pearce) but seems straight out of hell.
Liz and the Reverend share history, which Mr. Koolhoven slowly reveals in flashbacks that skew progressively more surreal. As one brutal chapter of her life slips into the next, God is invoked by name and mocked by example, and Liz learns many lessons, all horrible. She kills a pig (in an appalling, needlessly extended scene); loses her parents; loses her only friend; loses her tongue; loses herself; finds happiness but loses that, too. Like the heroine of a silent-era serial or a 1970s slasher flick, she takes a licking and just keeps on ticking.
As Liz runs from one end of this movie to the other, dodging and enduring peril, Mr. Koolhoven seems to be trying to say something about God and male dominance, misogyny and female resilience. Or maybe he loves Cormac McCarthy (or Lars von Trier). It’s hard to know, because far too often in “Brimstone” you can’t hear the signal for the falling blades, snapping necks, tumbling bodies and thundering gunfire. Given its bloodlust, “Brimstone” might have been better if Mr. Koolhoven had roughed up the story more (and not only his heroine) and gone for full-on exploitation. There’s a nice, nasty little movie in here somewhere.