Every Western that gets made feels like it could be the last one, and yet the genre refuses to ride off into the sunset. Martin Koolhoven's Brimstone doesn't breathe new life into the oater, but the Dutch writer/director has clearly studied the gunslingers of yore. His film strives for a novelistic scope, with a nonlinear narrative broken into four chapters that slowly weaves a multigenerational yarn. The filmmaker isn't as nimble as he is ambitious, though, and you'll feel all 148 minutes of Brimstone's runtime -- just maybe not in the way Koolhoven wants you to.
Dakota Fanning compels as a mute midwife whose inability to speak is not, we soon learn, an accident of birth. Liz is forced to choose between saving a mother-to-be and her baby, and her choice doesn't sit well with the newly arrived reverend (Guy Pearce) -- he feels Liz has sinned by making a decision that is the sole province of God.
Brimstone is relentlessly grim in a manner suggesting that Koolhoven reread Blood Meridian and tasked himself with one-upping Cormac McCarthy. The instrument he has set to that task Pearce's the unnamed man of God, a Judge Holden–like entity whose Old Testament fury manifests in self-flagellation and increasingly over-the-top violence. But Pearce can't make the words sing the way they need to, and Brimstone's thorough, self-consciously expansive style is more momentum-killing than revelatory. By the time Liz and the reverend's backstories are filled in, you may find yourself shifting in the pews and wishing the rapture would hurry up already.