In his English language, big-budget debut, Martin Koolhoven has combined a whole myriad of genres, in what is an ambitious, aesthetically gratifying piece that is best described as a horror-western. Think Bone Tomahawk, except without the cannibalism. And the quality.
Set in the American Midwest during the 19th century, this feminist piece pits the strength and courage of womanhood against against the barbaric cruelty of deep-rooted evil. That’s the simple way of putting it, anyway – really, it’s about Liz (Dakota Fanning), a mute, brave midwife and mother, who wants only to protect her family – but finds herself coming up against a tyrannical, demonic presence in the town’s new Reverend (Guy Pearce) who seems to have a vendetta against this poor young woman and her children. Though she seems to remember this man from somewhere in her past, and as time progresses she realises exactly who she’s up against – and she wants retribution.
Fanning impresses in the lead role, with a subtle, internalised affair. It’s about the only thing in this movie that could be described as subtle, however, for this grandiose piece thrives in its overstatement – and in Koolhoven’s defence, it appears he knows this, as there’s an affection in the kitsch elements that exist. Pearce, unlike his female counterpart, plays the role with such a conviction, so gloriously evil he becomes almost like a pantomime villain, which does devalue his fear factor, albeit a strong performance. There’s even roles for Game of Thrones’ duo Kat Harington and Carice van Houten, though they’re emblematic of a film that just has one character arc too many, expecting an awful lot of the viewer across this lengthy runtime, with so much to follow and invest in. There is a myriad of narratives merged together in a rather clumsy fashion, though Koolhoven does ensure the viewer just about remains compelled, for he feeds us little bits across the story, always keeping us guessing and on our toes, as at the very least this is an intelligently crafted, and well-structured tale, with chapters breaking up the narrative effectively.
There is a slight injection of supernaturalism, however, which is superfluous, and while we can comprehend what Koolhoven was thinking (is The Reverend a reincarnation of the Devil himself?) it’s just another thing for us to try and get our head around. This marks what is an ambitious feature, and one that the Dutch filmmaker should be commended for, particularly given it’s his first in the English language. So while flawed and tedious in parts – it’s hard not to look forward to whatever he’s doing next.