by Hope Madden
A lot of people headed west for a new start. Damsel, the latest quirky comedy from David and Nathan Zellner, doesn’t believe a fresh start is in store for any of us.
“Things are going to be shitty in new and fascinating ways.”
Like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter —the filmmakers’ high water mark—Damsel is a gorgeous film marked with visual absurdity that emphasizes the uniquely bizarre nature of the human being.
Unlike Kumiko, Damsel is a Western.
A dandy stranger named Samuel (Robert Pattinson) arrives at your traditional, sorry-ass Western town to find the parson (David Zellner). He has a deal set with the parson. But an amazing opening sequence brimming with the beauty, brutality and existential angst of the Wild West means that we know something about the parson that Samuel doesn’t.
Of course, Samuel knows some things he’s not sharing with the parson as well. Soon enough, the two are off, along with the miniature horse Butterscotch, to find and marry Samuel’s beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).
Into the utterly typical Western architecture ride characters entirely lacking that nobility and destiny of the Hollywood classic. The result is not a spoof, it isn’t wacky in the Mel Brooks fashion. It’s thoughtful and humorous, deliberately gorgeous and just a tad melancholy.
Recent years have seen their fair share of revisionist Westerns, but few truly tinker with that romantic nobility associated with every character in quite the way Damsel does.
Pattinson, continuing his streak, is a wonder. He steals every scene and scenes without him suffer from the loss.
Wasikowska is solid as not just the traditional butt-kickin’ Western woman, but a revelation of the status quo. It will be her character that carries us through most of the film, and that is both an intriguing and thematically strong decision. It’s just not as funny.
The film turns on a bullet from silly misadventure to something more profound: a glimpse into the historical constant of toxic masculinity.
As much as the second half of the film scores points for insight, the humor is more depressing and scenes lack the bright, shiny idiocy of Pattinson’s Samuel.
This is not a dooming flaw. The film’s deceptively whimsical comedy offers a biting criticism of traditional, romantically-masculine storytelling.