Westerns are big right now, and for good reason. Classic examples of the genre tend to embody American ideals of strong, heroic men triumphing over nature, beating the bad guys, and getting the pretty, helpless girl. It presents quite an opportunity to kill our idols (sometimes literally), and Damsel is a very enjoyable contribution to what has become a new tradition. Other films had moments of humor as they explored how our present beliefs sanitize our violent past and warp us today, but Damsel would rather use a more lighthearted tone as it gives us another example of how our assumptions cost us.
Or perhaps it’s just male assumptions Damsel warns against. One of the main characters, Parson Henry (David Zellner, who directed and co-wrote with his brother Nathan Zellner), is not really a parson, even if his constant drunkenness makes him a good fit. At the movie’s beginning, he’s told that his fresh start would merely be the beginning of his life sucking in “new and fascinating ways.” Granted, the preacher who warns him of this strips off his clothes and wanders into the desert to die right after, but he turns out to be right on the money. And Henry is free to assume his identity.
This identity is the reason Samuel (Robert Pattinson, proving his comic chops), a wealthy pioneer, seeks him out to perform the marriage ceremony for him and his fiance Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). For a wedding present, he’s even brought along a miniature horse named Buttercup. Samuel is willing to pay Henry more than he’s worth, which is always a bad sign. And sure enough, the more involved Henry gets, the more complicated things become. First he discovers he’ll actually have to undertake a journey to perform his duties, which he agrees to with great reluctance. Samuel is eager to sing the praises of his bride-to-be, which moves Henry in spite of himself. But he still balks when he discovers their expedition is actually a rescue mission, with Samuel planning to kill the man who abducted Penelope, then marry her on the spot.
Of course, when they arrive, things turn out to be even more complicated, and the true nature of Samuel’s love, as well as Penelope herself, is far from the rosy picture Samuel painted. Wasikowska has done good work in period films such as Jane Eyre and Crimson Peak, but she’s always been the proper lady even when she was behaving badly, as was the case in the otherwise mediocre Madame Bovary. But here she convincingly goes rough and tumble as she plays an independent woman who isn’t so much ahead of her time as a survivor of it. It’s a harsh world, and she is far more at home in it than the various men she encounters, who all objectify her in various ways and seek to offer protection she clearly has no need of.
While Damsel may not say anything new about male heroism and the glorified nature of the Old West, it’s a relief to see a movie which injects its dark subject matter with a dry sense of humor rather than reveling in the darkness and violence amidst its beautiful landscapes. David and Nathan Zellner have proven that they can serve up seriousness with compassion and skill, as they did in their last film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, which also centered around a woman at odds with her environment in a very different way. By filtering each of their characters through their humanist vision in Damsel, the Zellners end up creating something truly remarkable: a feminist statement made by men that’s actually good. Turns out, all the male filmmakers really needed to do was to treat their female character like a person. Who knew?