Fairytale Realism

Dutch writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes his English-language debut with Brimstone, a Biblical-infused western set in a small rural community. Dakota Fanning stars as Liz, a mute midwife who encounters a brutal clergyman known only as The Reverend (Guy Pearce). We talked to Koolhoven about the moral complexities of portraying on-screen violence and the influences upon his film.

ASFF: Are you surprised by people focusing on the film’s violence?
No, it is about violence. It would be the elephant in the room, if they wouldn’t talk about it. And also, you expect that some people will not appreciate it. History has been filled with movies that have been morally judged because they portray violence in a certain way. I think it would morally wrong to make a movie which is about this dangerous cocktail of violence and religion, and what it does to women, then make it a comfortable movie to watch.

ASFF: Do you see this as very relevant to religious persecution now?
As I was making the movie, it appeared to me there were certain parallels to now. You hope that on some subconscious level it will work. I think every movie that is historical has to have some sort of a relevance to what you’re seeing now.

ASFF: How influential was Charles Laughton’s 1955 film Night of the Hunter on you?
MK: It’s the one movie that I know that I was consciously influenced by. Of course I’ve been influenced by many things. But that movie, I knew. There are two moments in the movie where I directly reference it. The only time I let myself do that. There’s one shot, for example, where she’s with the gun and he’s howling. Honestly, I set out not to do something that was a homage. But Night of the Hunter is a great, great movie.

ASFF: Night of the Hunter was more like a fairytale; aren’t you striving for realism here?
MK: No. I don’t care whether this is realistic or not. That’s not the aim. I think Orson Welles said it right when he said, ‘The highest form of dramatisation is when something is not real, yet true.’ There are metaphysical things here. The story can be seen as a straight story, but there are underlying things. I do feel there is an element of very dark Grimm-like fairytale.

ASFF: Is the western to you like a fantasy?
Which it probably was anyway. The whole idea of the west as a myth, that was interesting. That’s why I dared to do this. I was going to do an English movie. I didn’t dare to do something in, say, contemporary New York. But I’ve read a lot about the west. I’ve seen a lot of movies, I know the mythology, and I felt comfortable to write a story which had these big ideas. It’s just a fantastic genre. You can do anything in it; it’s Greek mythology.

James Mottram

Brimstone opens on 29 September. For more details, visit: www.thunderbirdreleasing.com

1. Still from Brimstone. Courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.