Damsel

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson in Damsel
"The Zellner brothers...enter into a fascinating structural dialogue with the history of the genre." | Photo: Adam Stone

In Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Bunzo, the rabbit, cast a magic spell. Damsel deals just as much with the pitfalls of egoistic human endeavours and the vast spectrum of weakness where happiness and wishful thinking do not necessarily match up. Fantasy and delusion, ignorance and ownership can cause colossal pain for others. Full of humour and natural beauty, David Zellner and Nathan Zellner's latest exploration doesn't hide their stance on this kind of behaviour.

There were things that bothered me watching Westerns as a child. The women wore ridiculous outfits with feather boas and pointy lace-up booties and worked in bars with violent drunks, or they sat crying in some forsaken place while waiting for one or more men to make life-altering decisions for them.

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Western gals rarely got to talk back like Rosalind Russell in Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday, or be in on the codes like Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett, or be able to cut off the nonsense, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series opposite William Powell.

No other genre made the women seem so vulnerable and merely decorative. Joan Crawford in Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, and Marlene Dietrich's cowboy films, are the exceptions that prove the rule. But I loved the majestic Wild West landscapes and looking at the horses. When the plot fell flat with revenge and endlessly grimacing bad guys, there were always the horses.

The Zellner brothers, with their sharp-witted, subversive take on the classic Western not only address some of these grudges that I am certain quite a few people held, no, they enter into a fascinating structural dialogue with the history of the genre, almost blithely so.

Samuel Beckett may come to mind during the opening sequence, where a man of the cloth (Robert Forster) is waiting at a stagecoach stop in the middle of nowhere next to a newcomer to the West (David Zellner). The former has had enough of preaching to the "savages" and sheds his clothes and what's left of his bible for the latter to use for a "fresh start".

The costumes by Terry Anderson work in more mystifying ways than one might expect at first glance, like so much in Damsel. Forster's pink long johns don't make him look ridiculous, while David Zellner's Parson Henry has none of Robert Mitchum's character's active menace from Charles Laughton's The Night Of The Hunter, despite the fact that he dresses almost precisely like him.

Robert Pattinson as Samuel Alabaster and Mia Wasikowska as his love interest Penelope are introduced to us joyfully dancing at a cakewalk over the opening credits. When we next see Samuel, he arrives by rowboat in the mist with a large wooden box on the shore to begin his journey of finding his Honeybun again.

The box, we soon find out, contains a wedding gift for her, a caramel-coloured miniature horse named Butterscotch. It is played by Daisy, who when she doesn't steal a scene in front of a camera, works in a serious profession as a service animal who visits hospitals, David told me.

In a nameless frontier town, with a bunch of casually disgusting and crude inhabitants and their contrastingly very cute animals, Samuel hires Parson Henry to accompany him further into the wilderness where he shall bless the hopeful union between him and Penelope. The Zellners structure their story from the middle outwards.

The directors know when they want to be economical: a Chinese family, half of them dead, passes by on a wagon and an entire new story with a large history dimension passes by with them. And they know when to indulge: Butterscotch, transporting a chicken around in a cage on her back, and the landscapes from birch forest to mountain stream to rocky beach, unfold calmly in all their glory, shot by DP Adam Stone (Jeff Nichols' Loving, Midnight Special, Mud, Take Shelter).

Mia Wasikowska's Penelope exhibits a great deal of strength and just as her namesake from The Odyssey, she has a succession of suitors to deal with. "A real prize," "the most precious thing," or "a flower" may not exactly do justice to portray a human being. Imagine using the same words to describe a man.

Pattinson, hair parted slickly in the middle, shirt collars stiff and clean, gold tooth glistening, has never played a role quite like Alabaster before. His bold portrayal allows us to change our mind about this determined suitor and still find him grounded in an authentic reality. Nathan Zellner, who can also be seen on-screen as unruly trapper Rufus Cornell, and his brother David use our preconceived notions and they confront us with them at their own leisurely pace.

Reviewed on: 27 Jun 2018
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Damsel packshot
Several suitors pursue a young woman in the Wild West.


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