The Wild West is a place of fantasy long divorced from any truth that inspired its folklore. Movies have painted a gorgeous yet ferocious world of vast and vivid mesas and plains, inhabited by mysterious natives, dainty damsels in distress, black-hatted outlaws, and gruff but noble cowboys who ride high, like knights of this treacherous terrain. In our imagination, The West is a place ripe with opportunities to be a hero; the dangers are just part of that adventure. But in the sharply witty Western Damsel, buying into this fantasy means buying into deadly delusions of grandeur. Here, every man wants to think he’s the hero of this story, and every one is wrong.
Written and directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, the brothers behind the lovely and odd Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Damsel has the jaunty energy of a Coen Brothers comedy but with a cynical edge that’s uniquely their own. We first see this in the meltdown of a soured old pastor played by Robert Forster in the film’s stark start. In the middle of a seemingly endless stretch of desert, this haggard man of God gives up hope, then all his worldly possessions to a confounded stranger (David Zellner). Handing off his Bible, the pastor notes its missing pages, explaining some were used for “kindling, rolling papers, and hygiene.” There is no toilet paper in the wilderness, and the Bible’s pages were more useful for cleaning than comfort. This is the West this 1870s adventure unfurls.
The pastor sets the West up as a hopeless place where fools seek good fortune but find only crushing disappointment. Yet with this gear and a half-gone Bible, the newly minted “Parson” Henry (Zellner) will get a sorely longed for fresh start on a quest with a wealthy pioneer. Wearing a wide smile, jangly manner, and a dapper suit, Robert Pattinson gambols onto the scene as young lover Samuel Alabaster, pulling behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch. This whimsical detail underlines the unhinged fantasy these characters carry to the unwelcoming West. Where horses are used for travel and work, little Butterscotch is a senseless luxury, as well as a wedding gift for Samuel’s intended Penelope (a sharp Mia Wasikowska).
This will not be a Hollywood love story. The first sign of trouble is perhaps Samuel’s manic energy or that he hired a stinking drunkard to marry him and his lady love. As Samuel and Henry set out to find Penelope, more red flags spring up in bursts of violence. By the second act, our expectations for the lover, the damsel, and the parson are blown to smithereens. Subverting Western stereotypes, the Zellners’ script takes audiences to an uncomfortable place of no map. What will become of these strange characters that refuse to play the rules that this genre’s long laid out? We have no idea. Yet this question is one of curiosity, not suspense. There’s little urgency in Damsel, which has the lackadaisical yet melancholic pace of a Sunday stroll through a cemetery.
There is action, shootouts, and even explosions, but less for spectacle and thrills, and more as brutal comedic beats that serve as barking reminder of real life’s ludicrous randomness and cruelty. To balance these explosive moments of pain and inanity, Damsel is rich in stretches of simple silence as its characters slowly travel with uncertainty, or comically awkward conversations in which the Adam’s apples size are discussed as a means measuring manhood. The Zellners linger in these spaces, taking in the wild atmosphere, social awkwardness, the offbeat characters, and luxuriating in the bitter truths found in this breathing room. And their bold palette of golds and greens, gives us a chance to relish beauty even in this hopeless place.
Damsel is neither a rollicking adventure nor a rapturous love story, but a dark comedy that revels in character, confusion, and discomfort. The Zellners script mingles decades’ old archetypes with a modern sensibility and willfully anachronistic language like “mixed signals” and “personal boundaries.” Yet it blends together into a cheeky and challenging comedy, punctuated with macabre humor and raw vulnerability. The Zellners and their cast manage each offbeat turn with a shrewd aplomb, deftly brewing pathos amid broad absurdity and bleak blows. All of this clumsily yet satisfyingly collides to tell whimsical yet warning tale about the dangers of falling for fantasy.
At Nuart Theatre, Los Angeles
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com