Damsel opens with two characters trying to escape their fates, trapped in the Wild West of 1870s Utah. Waiting for a ride out of town, an old preacher (Robert Forster) sits with Henry (David Zellner), as they both get ready for a fresh start. Henry is on a search for something new after the death of his wife, and while tired of being the “man of faith,” the preacher disrobes, hands Henry his Bible and clothes, then he runs into the desert, never to be seen again. For decades, lost souls in Westerns have come to the town preacher for advice, but never before has it taken such a 180 turn, a complete switch of roles, especially in a Western’s opening scene. Throughout David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel, they constantly swap the preconceived notions of the Western and completely eschew any ideas that the standard Western would fall into.
Some time later, Henry is now Parson Henry, who has been enlisted to help young businessman Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson). Samuel plans on saving his love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) – who he believes was kidnapped. He plans to propose to her, then get married on the spot, with the help of Henry. Something is clearly off with Samuel, as his proposal also includes performing a song he wrote for Penelope that calls her “honeybun” several dozen times. He plans on gifting her a miniature pony named Butterscotch.
The Zellners’ play with the gender tropes and typical roles of the Western when Henry and Samuel find Penelope, discovering she might not be the damsel in distress that they expected to find. The result is a surprising and prescient shift that turns Damsel into a welcome feminist revisionist Western.
In many ways, the Zellners’s – who write, direct and star in the film – make Damsel an almost parody of the Western genre, while maintaining the brutality and loneliness of other recent Westerns like Slow West or Bone Tomahawk. Darkness and humor are never far from each other, and both are balanced in equal measure. The town in which Samuel and Henry first meet is quite literally a collection of Western stereotypes, from a crazy man whose only clothes seem to be a giant barrel, to the crazy drunk man who invites Samuel to join them for a “gangbang social” with a local prostitute at the bar. It’s almost as if the Zellners have made 2018’s equivalent of Blazing Saddles.
Damsel has been grounded with beautiful landscapes shot by frequent Jeff Nichols cinematographer Adam Stone, and the savagery that is expected from Westerns isn’t watered down, which makes the sharp turns the film takes hit even harder. Like the best parodies, Damsel also makes itself a fine version of the genre it’s lampooning. Yet with a powerful, sparse and modern score by The Octopus Project, the film never hides that this is a modern tale taking on classic film ideas.
With their script, David and Nathan Zellner digs into the fragile masculinity and loneliness of the West, an empty land with precious few opportunities to find a real connection. Damsel usage of male entitlement almost becomes a punchline, as every man who Penelope runs into is trying to access what their odds are with the young lady. The men are desperate and needy for love, whereas Penelope is stronger than all of them combined.
This is thanks to a fantastic performance by Wasikowska, who plays Penelope with a grit and a world weariness that completely upends the film’s title. Pattinson again proves that he’s one of the most interesting young actors working today, and brings enough to elements to Samuel that distinguishes him from the previous dimwits he’s played in films like The Rover and Good Time.
David Zellner as Henry has to personify all of the film’s ideas, from the inherent isolation of the newly explored West, to the balance of comedy and darkness, and holds his own with Patterson and Wasikowska.
With brilliance to spare, Damsel parodies Westerns, takes down toxic masculinity, creates a wonderful feminist icon in Wasikowska’s Penelope, and does this in the trappings of a ruthless and hilarious Western. Damsel is full of remarkable reversals and takedowns of genre trappings and gender ideals that makes it as important as it is entertaining.