‘Damsel’ turns the American western on its head with hilarious, offbeat tones and performances
Written and directed by: David Zellner and Nathan Zellner
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, and Robert Forster
“Damsel” – In the movie business, when one says damsel, it is usually followed by two additional words: in distress. Obviously, most unmarried women are not in distress, but Samuel (Robert Pattinson) believes that one particular damsel needs to be swept off her feet.
Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).
Around 1870, Samuel aims to marry Penelope, and he hires a guide named Parson Henry (David Zellner) to take him across the American west to her home and then officiate their wedding. Although their journey is long, Samuel’s story initially appears as predictable as a cowboy donning a hat on a bright summer day.
It is not.
Writers/directors David and Nathan Zellner’s newest creation is a hilarious surprise and the most unique western to arrive on the big screen in years.
Four years earlier, these brothers wrote (and David directed) “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014), the story of a Japanese woman’s perplexing journey. Kumiko travels to the United States to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character buried in the snow during 1996’s “Fargo”. Of course, the cash sitting in this semi-permanent winter wonderland is fictitious, but Kumiko is not aware of this very, very important fact and actually believes that the said loot sits in North Dakota…ripe for the taking.
As kooky as Kumiko’s plot thread sounds, Samuel’s is not far behind on the outlandish-scale (for reasons that will not be revealed in this review). During the movie’s 1-hour 53-minute runtime, the initial perceptions of Samuel and his trek morph into unexpected, bizarre reveals. Sure, the Zellners present classic western themes like long stretches on horseback, beautiful skies, hazardous saloons, and groups of simple townsfolk, but they marry these traditional images with eccentric, comedic characters.
The movie somewhat feels like a Wes Anderson picture, but it deliberately slows the pace to match the genre. Most of the main characters – like Samuel, Parson and Rufus (Nathan Zellner) – are not terribly bright, so they need to engage in long exchanges in order to properly communicate their thoughts. This is especially noticeable, whenever Penelope appears in the frame, because her logical approaches resemble the mind of an independent woman living in 2018, rather than a 19th century, uneducated dependent living on the open range.
In addition to the period’s verbal nuances, David and Nathan offer entertaining, offbeat visuals of their own, and the most endearing is an adorable miniature horse named Butterscotch. This beloved little animal appears throughout the picture and every precious on-screen frame is pure gold. Parents should be warned that taking their small children to “Damsel” could be a dangerous proposition. Sure, the movie is rated-R, but any child subjected to repeated views of Butterscotch will certainly induce a deep desire to own such a horse of his or her own. Hey, just trying to save mothers and fathers from unneeded future expenses.
Well, a ticket to see “Damsel” is easily worth the price of admission. In addition to enjoying an ingenious dark comedy, one will walk out of the theatre and not immediately associate the words in distress with the film’s title. How refreshing!
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.