Damsel is a proud entry in the recent spate of low-budget, low-key revisionist Westerns. In particular, it feels like a cousin of Meek’s Cutoff and Slow West, combining the former’s undercutting of traditional masculine ideals with the latter’s casual vibe and dry sense of humor. But filmmaker brothers David and Nathan Zellner, who wrote, directed and both star in the movie, also have their own distinct tone. Building on the style first brought to wide attention with their previous film, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, they wring tremendous humor out of their characters’ failings while maintaining quiet empathy for their humanity.
Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) has come to the prairie with two guns, a guitar slung over his shoulder and a miniature horse named Butterscotch on a leash (played by Daisy, and immediately the greatest movie animal of the year). He’s in search of his wayward love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who’s been abducted by a romantic rival, and enlists drunken preacher Henry (David Zellner) to help him track her down.
But this is no rousing adventure — nary a single swash is properly buckled. Samuel can’t hold his liquor, continually fumbles with his guns and can’t make a declarative statement without hemming or hawing. And of course, it’s impossible to evoke John Wayne when you’re going around with an adorable miniature horse at your side. Henry, meanwhile, is no parson at all. In the opening sequence, a flashback to when he was new to the West, he takes the Bible and clothes of a real preacher (Robert Forster) who, tired of the solitary futility of his trade, strips off and walks into the desert. Henry comes from the coast claiming to seek a “fresh start” — the rallying cry of settlers in stories like this for over a century. But the film asserts that such reinventions are impossible. You can change your home, your clothes and your profession, but if you’re still the same messed-up person underneath, nothing will improve for you.
Damsel is a Western full of characters who seem to know they’re in a Western, and keep trying to act the parts they believe they’re playing, only for their fantasies to smash against reality. As Samuel and Henry travel further into the wilderness, it becomes increasingly apparent that Samuel is lying about nearly everything he initially claimed. When Penelope finally appears halfway through the film, it turns out that the title is wholly ironic and she immediately seizes the mantle of main character from Samuel. She is the obverse of the idiot men around her, staunchly refusing to fall into any role expected of her as a woman.
Wasikowska’s performance is a master class in constant exasperation and level-headed competence. She holds her head and shoulders in resolution, and takes each step like she can crush any obstacle beneath her heel. Pattinson yet again reveals further depth as an actor, here relishing the part of a young and foppish Don Quixote, shooting at trees instead of tilting at windmills. Zellner is the perfect useless sidekick, never not hapless and often trembling like a rabbit caught on an open field who can feel the hawks circling.
The Zellners continue to direct with relaxation, utilizing measured editing and still shots. The movie paradoxically pulls big laughs out of knowing precisely how to frame each pratfall, or to hit a reaction shot perfectly after someone (usually Samuel) says something ridiculous. It also presents some truly inspired sight gags, such as a man who continues to urinate for an awfully long time after being killed, the mule wearing a hat or the many juxtapositions of Butterscotch with other subjects. (I laughed at pretty much every shot of her.) A tremendously fun movie, Damsel reinvigorates the Western aesthetic even as it defies many of the genre’s story conventions.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.