There is a brilliant premise at the heart of the new indie western Damsel. It’s too bad the rest of the movie never quite lives up to the promise of its central idea. Filmmaking team David and Nathan Zellner have made a deconstructionist western in which the damsel of the title, Penelope, is in anything but distress. At least, she wouldn’t be if it weren’t for all the men in her life who are trying to save her. She doesn’t need or want to be saved from anything, but every man she comes across tries to force it upon her, to her endless frustration.
That sly twist on a familiar trope is how the Zellner brothers upend the thematic myth of the western genre that insists women on the frontier needed men to protect and rescue them. That myth is alive and well in other forms of entertainment, and it has a pernicious hold on every part of our culture. That’s why it’s so refreshing that the Zellner brothers are skewering it in Damsel.
The movie focuses on a man named Samuel Alabaster and his attempt to rescue his true love, Penelope. Samuel hires a local preacher, Parson Henry, to marry them. As the two men travel the unsettled wilderness, Parson Henry discovers he’s been hired to do more than just officiate a wedding. Samuel tells Henry that his nemesis has abducted Penelope, and Samuel needs the preacher’s help to get her back.
Where the film falters is in its execution. Damsel is also a slapstick comedy. This is a western by way of There’s Something about Mary, and the comedy is so broad, and at times idiotic, that it undercuts the message the filmmakers are trying to deliver. It’s possible that’s the point. Maybe the Zellner brothers are trying to emphasize the foolishness of men feeling protective – and by extension, possessive – of women by surrounding it with equally foolish jokes.
There are some instances where this works. When the movie shows restraint and subtlety, the absurdist comedy is brilliant. The exaggerated sound design of Samuel’s spurs jingling and jangling as he moves to each strategic location in his plan (grove of trees, outhouse, etc.) to rescue Penelope is hilarious.
Most of the jokes, however, fall to the floor with a thud. One involves a man being shot in the head while he is relieving himself on the side of a tree stump. When his body falls to the ground, his penis continues to expel the strong stream of urine, as if nothing had happened. The sequence looks like it was a complicated technical achievement, and the Zellner brothers shoot it in such a way that shows off their pride in its success. It comes off, like most of the other slapstick moments, as bits of juvenilia in an otherwise sophisticated critique of the western genre.
In it’s more restrained moments, Damsel does reward viewers who are familiar with the conventions of the movies it’s lampooning. Parson Henry is a drunk and a coward, and when Samuel first gets to town, he must find the preacher. In a clever ode to the genre, there is a short montage of Samuel getting Henry sober and cleaning him up in preparation for their journey. There is also a running joke that plays on the importance that westerns put on a man’s horse. Samuel takes a miniature horse, named Butterscotch, with him everywhere he goes. It’s a gift for Penelope.
Another thing that the Zellner brothers get right about their sendup also works against it. In the westerns where our hero is on a quest to save an imperiled woman – most famously, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards’ mission to find his niece in The Searchers – the woman in question isn’t present for most of the film. In Damsel, a feminist western, Penelope, the central and only woman in the picture, is missing for almost half of its runtime.
Once she does show up, though, she becomes the driving force of the movie. It’s a welcome change and challenge not only to westerns, but to storytelling conventions in general. Mia Wasikowska is fabulous in the role of Penelope. The key to her performance is frustration, and Wasikowska renders it with a great amount of skill. Most women will probably identify immediately with the trials Penelope faces in trying to get the men in her life to listen to her, treat her as an autonomous human being, and, most importantly, to leave her the hell alone.
Wasikowska is asked to deliver some clumsy dialog, but she makes it work. In particular, “I know I don’t know everything, but I know as much as I can handle, and I’d like to leave it at that,” is indicative of the Zellner brothers most egregious writing missteps.
Robert Pattinson, as Samuel, also does his best with what he’s given. His character is the most ridiculous of the bunch, which is part of the point the Zellners are trying to make here. Still, that means he gets most of what works least in Damsel, the slapstick. Pattinson hams it up accordingly, but the jokes still fall disappointingly flat. If the Zellners had opted to reign in their wildest instincts, Damsel would land with a much greater effect than it does.
That’s evidenced by the care they take with the rest of the movie. For the idiosyncratic score, the Zellners collaborated with Austin, Texas-based band The Octopus Project (the directors are also from the Austin area). The music is strange and unique. It lends the movie a bizarre charm.
Cinematographer Adam Stone had an amazing palate with which to work, as principle photography for Damsel took place in Utah and Oregon. Stone shot the breathtaking landscapes beautifully, and he gives this western a rugged feel that is also full of splendor. He brought the old west back to stunning life.
Damsel’s fatal flaw is one of tone. If it weren’t for the painfully unfunny slapstick, the core message of the movie would land with much greater impact. As it is, the film feels like a giant missed opportunity. It’s a movie I’m not keen to revisit, but I’m interested to hear as many different opinions about it as I can, because it’s a movie that is bound to elicit wildly different reactions from everyone who sees it.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- This one might be on me. I was never able to get in sync with what Damsel was doing. The outrageous comedy was constantly at odds with the broader message the movie was out to deliver.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Just like with their 2014 film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the Zellner brothers show a great talent for creating memorable, evocative imagery. There is a tableau that lasts a minute at best of a hanging in the small town where Samuel begins his journey. The combination of camera movement, music, and subdued action within the frame as the man swings slowly back and forth while the townsfolk looks on is haunting.
- Throughout the movie I kept thinking to myself, "Could the Coen brothers have made this comedy work?" I never came to a satisfactory answer.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- I saw this with a small crowd that, on the whole, laughed harder than I did. By the end, though, I got the sense that they didn't really know what to make of it.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I can count on one hand the number of times I've been caught up in the collective fan outcry to bring a TV show back from a premature cancellation. I didn't write any emails or join a Twitter campaign when the Netflix series Sense8 was axed after two seasons, but I grieved the loss of a group of characters to which I had grown very close. I was excited to hear the show would get a proper conclusion when the creators announced that Netflix had given the go-ahead to shoot a series finale in movie form. That movie is available for streaming now (at a whopping two-and-a-half hours), and I'll take a look at the final chapter next week to assess how it lives up to the show.