This feminist Western is the story of Liz (Dakota Fanning), who lives with her older husband Eli (William Huston), her teenage stepson and her small daughter on a farm somewhere on the frontier of the Old West.
They are part of a religiously fundamentalist Dutch immigrant community, where Liz is the local midwife. For reasons we will later discover, she is mute although not deaf, and her little girl Sarah (Ivy George) acts as her “voice”. But the arrival of a new fire and brimstone preacher, known only as the Reverend (Guy Pearce) destroys her peaceful life. She obviously knows and fears him from something in her past – something for which the Reverend is out to wreak a brutal and terrible revenge on her.
The story is told in four chapters with biblical titles – Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution, with the middle two taking us into Liz’s past, as a teenager and then an even younger girl on the verge of puberty and played here by Emilia Jones, who is physically an excellent match for Fanning. It is an almost unremittingly brutal and often bloody story, blowing apart the heroic mythology of the Old West, depicting it as a horrific world in which women are the victims of a brutal, misogynystic society, subject to torture, beatings, rape, mutilation and death. Liz though is a survivor who fights against her female fate and finally inflicts her “Retribution” on her tormentor in the resolution of the story.
One sometimes wonders if the writer/director Martin Koolhoven hates his own gender. With the exception of Eli and his son and to a limited extent Kit Harington as an outlaw who tries to help Liz, nearly all the men are total bastards, from the Reverend himself to the Chinese immigrant who sells her to a “cat house”, where the customer is always right whatever brutality he inflicts on the women there. There is also a strong theme of revulsion for the evils of fundamentalist, male dominated religion. Koolhaven is Dutch, raised in a Calvinist tradition and the film was unsurprisingly produced and filmed in Europe, not America, where it has predictably not been enthusiastically received.
Although not an easy watch the film grips the attention throughout. Fanning’s expressive performance and that of Jones as her younger self Joanna both engage our empathy for the character’s self determination, while Pearce as her persecutor, sporting an Amish style beard and a gravelly Dutch accent is a strong and terrifying presence and unremittingly evil throughout.
The disturbing emotional morality of the film is similar in many ways to that of the recently UK screened television series “The Handmaid’s Tale”, though the horrors inflicted on Liz/Joanna and the other women, who include Carice van Houten as Joanna’s mother, are admittedly even more graphic.
As a woman I found the film neither exploitative nor offensive. There may well however be some women who do.