Damsel (2018) Film Review from the 6th Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a movie directed by David and Nathan Zellner, starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, and Robert Forster.
Westerns are familiar territory for film-goers. There are certain staples that the genre offers, and we the audience have come to expect. The opening of Damsel suggests such a story. Samuel Alabaster (played by Robert Pattinson) arrives at a small town determined to find his lost love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He hires a drunkard named Parson Henry (David Zellner) to travel with him. As they set out, Samuel informs Parson that Penelope has in fact been kidnapped. With the help of Parson, Samuel intends to kill Penelope’s captor, and marry her.
However, this is not as simple of a journey as we be are led to believe. What I absolutely love about this movie is how it subverts our expectations. The lines between heroes, villains, and damsels are blurred. Is Samuel truly the hero of the story? We all are heroes in our own story, in a sense. That is how he sees himself, the heroic cowboy rescuing the “damsel in distress”. And is Penelope really in need of saving? How does she feel about Samuel, are the feelings reciprocal?
The movie eventually becomes a slapstick farce, with everything from body limbs being blown off, chickens being decapitated, and Indians shooting arrows at our protagonists. Not that I didn’t enjoy these gags, it was just unexpected following a reflective and melancholic first half of the film. The second half has glacial pacing, and could have been edited tighter.
With Damsel, the Zellner Brothers have given us a fresh update to the Western genre. It is a sublime pastiche with witty dialogue, unreliable narration, and gorgeously photographed vistas. The standout for me is David Zellner’s performance as the dim-witted Parson Henry. Every scene, reaction, and line is hysterical. Robert Pattinson provides a fine performance as the ‘heroic cowboy’, delivering a surprising comedic edge that I hadn’t seen from him. He also has good chemistry with his horse, a miniature one named Butterscotch. And although Mia Wasikowska doesn’t appear until halfway through, she leaves an impression as Penelope.
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