A low-key, eccentric approach to the western genre, about a damsel, not in distress
Damsel is set in the West, anno 1870, and can therefore be called a western, but there are no gunslingers and no shootouts in dusty town streets; there's a damsel, but she's not in distress, and there's even an Indian - sorry: a Native American - but he's different from any other red man you may have met in cinema thus far.
Like a few other 'different' western movies in recent memory (The Homesman, Meek's Cutoff, The Sisters Brothers), Damsel is a movie about a journey. It is undertaken by a young man called Samuel Alabaster (wonderfully played by Robert Pattinson), who ventures West in the company of a mini-horse called Butterscotch and a parson. The horse is a wedding gift for a young girl who's supposed to be waiting for him out there at the frontier, and he picked up the parson in a frontier town because he needs a man of the cloth to officiate the marriage.
The opening scene has told us that the parson is a fake: he received his clothes and bible from an old preacher who wanted to make a new start in life. Soon we also start having doubts about Samuel and his girlfriend: Samuel holds a picture of the girl in a locket, but is she really waiting for him, out there in the wilderness? How on earth did she get there? When the priest utters his doubts, Samuel tells him that the girl is held captive by two settlers, a brute and his mentally retarded brother ...
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This is the first of a series of twists; the second - and most radical one - takes place at the half-way point, when Samuel and the priest reach the cabin where this girl named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska in another excellent performance) is supposed to be held captive. Samuel and Penelope have shared a few happy moments in the past, but it becomes clear that the experience had a completely different effect on them, and all hopes for a happy future are blown away in a couple of moments of unexpected violence. The halfway point of this movie is an about face you hardly ever experience in cinema, worth an entrance ticket alone. Telling more about it, would spoil the fun, or the shock.
In their relatively young career, the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, have developed a preference for oddball - yet warm - characters and unpredictable storylines. Damsel is all this. It's a comedy, but the comedy is of a deadpan nature and the atmosphere is rather bleak, eventually almost depressing. I found the movie quite likable, but some western fans will no doubt complain about the slow pace and the lack of authenticity (even most of the conversations have a contemporary ring). And if both Pattinson and Wasikowska are terrific - and perfectly cast - Nathan Zellner miscast himself as the preacher, a character that becomes increasingly unbelievable and pathetic as the story progresses. Maybe the brothers should have asked Robert Forster – who appears in this truly wonderful opening scene, and in this opening scene only - for this role.
2018 – Directed by David & Nathan Zellner - Robert Pattinson (Samuel Alabaster), Mia Wasikowska (Penelope), David Zellner (Parson Henry), Robert Forster (Old Preacher), Nathan Zellner (Rufus Cornell), Joseph Billingiere (Zacharia Running Bear), Morgan Lund, Gary Brookins, Gabe Casdorph – Music: The Octopus Project