Some may think that the western-genre-turned-arthouse-gimmick has been played out, but Damsel‘s fresh energy and pioneering spirit offers redemption.
Damsel, written and directed by David and Nathan Zeller. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema.
By Peg Aloi
This funny, tender, clever, and unerringly inventive western is written and directed by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, who also both star. Ostensibly a love story, the narrative follows the trials and tribulations of Samuel Alabaster, a young, enterprising pioneer who is determined to propose to his true love, Penelope. Played by Robert Pattinson (showing himself to be remarkably diverse as an actor given his inauspicious beginnings as a sparkly vampire in Twilight), Samuel is earnest, polite, fastidious, and romantic. He earns immediate empathy for his hapless but enthusiastic passion for his betrothed.
However, before we meet Samuel, there is a stunning opening scene. David Zellner plays Henry, a traveler sitting at a small shelter waiting for a stagecoach; a reddish desert vista surrounds them. He finds himself sitting alongside an itinerant preacher played with an exquisitely brusque touch by veteran ’70s actor Robert Forster. The two converse briefly about what brought them to that place and time: Henry, dressed in woolen long johns, explains he lost his wife when she died in childbirth and now seeks a fresh start. The preacher, originally from Baltimore, seems to have reached the end of the line in more ways than one. He delivers a cynically measured speech — his face as still as stone, barely registering any emotion — about how corrupt he found being a preacher on the prairie. After that, he hands Henry his Bible, half its pages removed (“for kindling, rolling papers and hygiene”). He strips off his preacher garb, whoops loudly, and runs into the tumbleweed-strewn landscape. It is a fitting kick off to this odd, funny, sharp-witted, and perfectly-executed Western.
A brief scene follows, showing Samuel at a lively hoe-down, holding a young woman in his arms (Mia Wasikowska); they’re both staring straight ahead, as if for an old-time portrait. Then we see Samuel rowing a small boat ashore, but it’s not clear where he is coming from, or how far the coast is from the town we first encountered him in: northern California, perhaps? (The film was shot on location in Utah.) The boat contains a large wooden box; inside is a miniature horse the color of straw, named Butterscotch. Later on, Samuel explains that the animal is named after his beloved’s favorite candy, noting that he realizes she prefers horehound but he did not think that a suitable name for a horse. The screenplay is clever, quick, and often rather silly like this throughout.
Samuel arrives in a small, dusty frontier town that is built out of every Wild West movie cliché you’ve ever seen, except that everything is dirtier, meaner, and much more depressing. Samuel sees a number of homely atrocities as he approaches the saloon. A large bearded man wearing a barrel laughs maniacally in the street. The only woman younger than fifty is the town whore, mostly toothless and dressed in taffeta. She is scheduled to host a “gang bang” that evening, according to one of the saloon’s regulars. Samuel orders a pilsner at the bar, but he is told there’s only whiskey, which he can’t finish because of his sensitive stomach, which provokes another customer to question his manhood (and also to lay claim to the rest of his drink). Samuel announces he’s looking for Parson Henry, who was last seen “upchucking in the corner.” There doesn’t seem to be a sheriff, so the alcoholic parson is the only peacekeeper in the town.
Once he locates Parson Henry (the man we met in the first scene, almost unrecognizable now because he face is lined with sadness and ennui), Samuel reminds him of the telegram he sent asking him to officiate at his wedding. Henry agrees to accompany Samuel to an unknown destination, with Butterscotch in tow. Along the way, Samuels refers often to his darling Penelope, whose photo he wears in a locket. He praises her beauty, culinary skills, intelligence, and kisses. He sings a song he wrote for her. But when Samuel reveals that Penelope has been kidnapped by two nasty brothers, Henry balks. He doesn’t want to be part of a dangerous rescue mission. The suitor insists and offers to pay the parson more than twice the amount they agreed on. They run into one brother, a Davey Crockett type minus that legend’s integrity (Rufus Cornell, played by co-writer/director Nathan Zeller) and, after some gunfire, he appears to fall to his death in a rocky ravine.
At last the pair arrive at the homestead where Samuel believes Penelope is being held prisoner. It is a small tidy cabin with smoke drifting out of the chimney, an outhouse, and a clothesline with petticoats and long johns hanging from it. Despite his protests Samuel convinces Henry to cover him with a shotgun while he sneaks into the house and rescues Penelope. A tall man with blonde hair (whose face we can’t see) comes out of the home to urinate — presumably this is Anton Cornell, Penelope’s abductor. Despite his shaking hands and lack of skill with a gun, Henry shoots him (fatally) in the head. Penelope emerges from the house, after firing a shot through an opening in the door. She falls weeping upon the dead man; it seems that Samuel’s intended has been spoken for by another. Samuel chooses this inappropriate moment to propose marriage and this enrages Penelope, who claims she loved Anton and was happy with him. Wasikowska gives her usual excellent performance here, as a tough pioneer wife who doesn’t take shit from anyone.
The depth of Samuel’s sad delusion becomes clear, as well as the extent to which he is willing to carry out his fantasy. Unlike Samuel, Penelope deals with her loss and grief pragmatically. Soon she sets forth with Butterscotch, her mule, two horses, and Parson Henry. Best to leave the rest to the viewer to discover, but the journey is beset with unpredictable encounters and quirky events, including a Native American scout (Joseph Billingiere) who both helps and impedes their progress. The rest of the film continues to serve up its distinctive brand of humor, absurdity and pathos; the performances are finely-tuned performances all-round, especially from David Zellner as the world-weary, sensitive Henry, and Pattinson as the borderline sociopathic romantic, Samuel. Some may believe that the western-genre-turned-arthouse gimmick was played out long ago, but Damsel‘s fresh energy and pioneering spirit offers redemption on many levels, for characters and viewers alike.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com