It’s a 19th century Western that was actually shot in Europe (Hungary, Spain, Austria and Germany)—the locations are well-chosen and work fine. The story is very grim, and resulted in some backlash from American and British critics over alleged misogyny, but its actually a revenge story about a woman who has consistently abused by men. There is child prostitution, incest and rape, but it’s clear who the monster is: a preacher who wraps himself in Calvinist religion. Each of the film’s four chapters has a biblical name (Revelation, Exodus, Genesis and Retribution), and they are not in chronological order, making for a slightly surreal narrative. Luckily, the European reaction to the film has been mostly positive, which indicates that director Martin Koolhoven is probably doing something right if he can polarise opinion like that.
The lead role of Liz is played by Dakota Fanning, a child actress who has grown up to be really good, and Guy Pearce plays the Reverend, the villain of the peace. The fact that she is so young but is in some terrifying situations may have bothered some viewers. She puts in a really physical performance and handles it very well. Amelia Jones plays Liz as a child. Pearce and Koolhoven obviously modelled his performance on Robert Mitchum’s role in The Night of the Hunter, and they have been pretty upfront about that. His accent is a bit all over the place, but he has a fantastic range (from Priscilla to LA Confidential) and holds his spot as one of the five best actors working today with this role. He is completely menacing as hell. Carice van Houten turns in a heavy-duty performance as the Reverend’s long-suffering wife, holding her own against Pearce.
The film is not a scrambled narrative: the first part is the third segment, the second and third show what happened before, and the final part is indeed the end. It would have worked fine in chronological order as well. At two and a half hours, with some deleted scenes, it also could have easily been a four-part TV series.
Robert Pattinson was after the part of an outlaw, Samuel, who was eventually played by Kit Harington. He has since said he regretted turning it down, but his having done almost lost Koolhoven the financing—Pearce flew out to do it anyway and saved the day.
The fans of the film tended to be writers for specialist sites, the kind of who understand genre and have more tolerance for films that other people might find questionable. As a Western, it’s probably one of the more realistic Westerns—it’s not sentimental at all, and shows aspects of the old West that have not been looked at as often as others. You could call it a horror-western if you wanted to, although it doesn’t have the overt genre elements of Bone Tomahawk, which came out at the same time and goes for the more gross-out moments. Probably the one weakness is the storyline about some criminals who are hiding out, which slightly derails the revenge narrative. Nevertheless, it all gets back on track. It’s a real descent into hell, and the best comparison would probably be the work of Cormac McCarthy.
On the disc viewers will find some sizable interviews with the main cast and crew, most at the 10- to 20-minute mark, not some silly EPK stuff filmed between takes. There are also some deleted scenes.