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Grim western tells the story of Liz (Dakota Fanning), a midwife married to a widower and with a child of her own. One day a mysterious, scarred preacher (Guy Pearce) comes to town, a man of the cloth that Liz knows from her past and greatly fears. This preacher knows her as well and proclaims that he has come to make the young woman suffer and bring her to retribution. Who is this man and what has Liz done to incur his wrath?
Over the next two and one half hours of writer/director Martin Koolhoven’s harrowing film, we go into Liz’s past to find out the answers to those very questions…and a harsh journey it is. The film is told in four parts with the middle two parts going back further and further into the story to tell us how this quest for revenge began and how and if “Liz” earned it. It is not a pleasant journey and we bare witness to some cruel and hard events, as well as, some shockingly graphic violence along the way. To go in depth too much would be to spoil the mystery and even if he crafts an unpleasant film, Koolhoven does make an intriguing one, whose mysteries we want answers to. It’s suspenseful and many of the images and events we witness have impact and weight that stays with us. The film takes us through a series of sometimes unpleasant events that bring us to where our story opens…and then comes to an equally harsh and unsettling finish. It’s not perfect. At 148 minutes, it is a bit long, especially as it is not a happy tale and there are a few glaring mysteries left unanswered, such as how one character escaped what seems like a certain death. Add to that, the overall unpleasantness of the story and some of it’s subject matter and you have a well crafted film that is not always easy to watch. On a technical level it is a solid production with Koolhoven showing he knows how to frame a shot. There is nice cinematography by Rogier Stoffers and an effective soundtrack by Junkie XL along with some effective sets and settings for within which the story takes place.
The cast are all quite good, which helps keep us with this grim tale. Dakota Fanning proves quite the strong actress in her portrayal of Liz. We have a woman with a past who will fight to save the family she now has, but as strong as she is, this “Preacher” fills her with dread and fear and she conveys that to the audience, so we share her feelings. It is a solid performance with many facets for the young actress to portray…and she portrays them well. Guy Pearce is imposing as the mysterious and vicious “Preacher”. Whether his quest for retribution is just or not, he is a vicious and cruel man. He commits horrible acts and even as we go back into the past to see how this story began to unfold, we are treated to a hard and sometimes brutal man, who seems to be using his religion to excuse his actions. Pearce really gives this man a black heart that makes the character truly frightening. Emilia Jones is also very good as the younger “Liz” who goes by another name. Jones has to act out some very harsh and uncomfortable scenarios and the young actress does very strong work and it makes for a seamless portrayal of the younger version of Fanning’s frontier midwife in peril. The cast also features good work from supporting actors such as Carice van Houten as “Liz’s” mother and Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington as an outlaw who crosses paths with our main characters at one point.
This was a very well made film, but not one you could say you enjoyed. It deals with some harsh subject matter and is sometimes cruel and unpleasant. One can definitely appreciate the talent of the director/writer and the craft of his cast, but it still is a tough watch at times. It is a bit long, even though it has a lot of story to tell and even at it’s length, there are some questions that remain. Recommended, but only with the understanding that this is not a pleasant film by any stretch.