Film Review: Damsel

With their signature absurdist humor, the Zellner Brothers shrewdly overturn the gender archetypes of the western genre and introduce one of cinema’s greatest animal sidekicks of all time: a miniature horse named Butterscotch.
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With their off-kilter cinema, filmmaking duo the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, essentially tell fairytales with a contemporary spin, charged with absurdist humor and humanism. In Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, an inventive, often affecting riff on Fargo, the brothers’ keenly felt concern for the story’s heroine was somewhat undercut by the film’s idiosyncratic comedy, which occasionally flourished at the lead character’s expense. In the delightful (yet slightly overextended) Damsel, a revisionist western with a delicious feminist twist, the pair’s wittiness finds a perfect target in the dusty landscapes of the quintessentially American genre, with its longstanding masculine and feminine archetypes begging to be overturned.

This is a longer way of saying: Don’t let Damsel’s title deceive you. The existence of an implied female-in-distress in the Zellners’ latest is questionable from the get-go (not unlike the “innocent childishness” in Kid-Thing and “a hidden fortune” in Kumiko the Treasure Hunter). If you really want to spot the incidental suffering here, follow the story’s men and read the map of their oblivious faces instead.

Damselkicks things off with a wonderful overture, during which an old preacher (Robert Forster) and a man named Henry (David Zellner) lament about the desolate old West and wait for a stagecoach that is nowhere in sight. After the preacher departs from the story, Henry takes on his priestly duties, getting his drunken self hired by the priggish, dreamy-eyed Samuel Alabaster, played with pitiful silliness by Good Time’s Robert Pattinson (continuing to bolster his diverse and ever-surprising career).

Samuel appears to be a proper, if slightly goofy, gentleman who couldn’t drain a shot of whisky if his life depended on it. With his unruffled attire, amusingly middle-parted hair and well-groomed miniature horse, Butterscotch (one of the greatest onscreen animal sidekicks of all time, with charm surpassing even that of Kumiko’s bunny Bunzo), Samuel plots to rescue the love of his life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), from brutal kidnappers. Henry will not only help this smitten fellow in his quest, but also officiate at his wedding to his precious “Honey-Bun” once her captors are sufficiently incapacitated in a hysterically elaborate plan.

Except Penelope, brought to life with mighty authority by a stern Wasikowska, is doing just fine in her quiet and isolated life. (This won’t come as a shock to those careful enough to detect the slightest bit of discomfort in her face when she dances with Samuel near the film’s opening.) Her bliss disturbed by a sincere but clueless male, Penelope finds herself further bewildered by a string of delusional suitors all wanting to do the same thing: keep her gun-toting, bossy self away from the kind of peril she doesn’t look to be in. “I don’t need anybody’s saving,” she impatiently asserts in one scene. Only the obedient miniature horse seems to concede the point.

Damsel doesn’t always flow as breezily as it should as a quirky frontier story. Its mirth runs out of steam, especially after Penelope’s true capacity is revealed. The jokes become slightly one-note in a comedy that’s at times too fanciful for its own good. Yet its occasional limpness doesn’t invalidate its genuine gusto, delivered through a refreshing female character who more than acquits herself in the barren tableau splendidly captured by cinematographer Adam Stone. Damsel is a worthwhile effort gleefully carried out by a dedicated ensemble—including the impossibly charming Butterscotch (Daisy in real life), who steals the screen one miniature step at a time.

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