Bruce Steele: In 2018, the word “damsel” finds usage almost exclusively attached to the words “in distress,” a cliché that the makers of the drily comic western Damsel want to have some fun with. Did you have fun watching them have fun?
Edwin Arnaudin: Initially, yes. An amusing prologue with a tired older preacher (Robert Forster) encouraging new arrival Henry (David Zellner) to lower his expectations about the West sets the film’s deadpan style. The arrival of gung-ho Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) and his miniature horse Butterscotch packs a similar oddball glee, both in his refined sensibilities clashing with the rugged surroundings and the pint-sized animal as a sight gag — but their charms don’t last long.
Bruce: The Forster prologue is beautifully shot and an intriguing teaser, but the writer-director team of David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter) seems to lose focus after that. Samuel arrives in a small western town and hooks up with Henry, now an alcoholic faux preacher, in a quest to rescue his beloved, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom he says has been kidnapped by brother bandits. The rest of the movie is the gradual introduction of a series of western characters that attempts to turn each of them on their heads. But they mostly just stumble around, literally and narratively.
Edwin: And not to great comedic effect, either. Goofy things happen and humorous dialogue is spoken, but laughs are strangely scarce and the blending of dramatic and Western tropes further muddy the product. Kumiko, about a young Japanese woman who believes Fargo’s claim as a true story and goes to the U.S. to dig up the buried box of money, felt tonally consistent, but throughout Damsel I struggled to find a proverbial toe hold. Were you similarly adrift?
Bruce: “Adrift” is a word that has come up a lot regarding recent movies. It fits Damsel well. You’re right about the failure to build a sustained comic tone — how can you introduce a miniature horse and then never find any gags to utilize it? And I’m still not sure what it’s about. The title suggests it’s Penelope’s movie, while the prologue suggests it’s Henry’s. The refusal to flesh out anyone’s back stories, including Samuel’s and Penelope’s, seems intentional but also counterproductive.
Edwin: Agreed. Henry serves as the through-line character and his desire to start anew after losing his wife in childbirth is about as rich a personal history as we get. If an actor more magnetic than David Zellner was cast in the role, it might feel like less of a void, but his lazy droll and stagnant lines were a constant distraction for me. Samuel somewhat reminds me of a more innocent version of Ryan O’Neal’s Moses Pray from Paper Moon and Penelope having more masculine traits than he and Henry combined delivers occasional payoffs, but I’m with you: what exactly does it add up to and what the heck are the Zellners trying to say with this seemingly pointless film?
Bruce: Rather than answering your question, since I don’t have an answer, I’d like to use this opportunity to contrast Damsel to a similar neo-western about a young man on a trek with a stranger to find his beloved: Slow West (2015). In that film, the sidekick Silas was played by Michael Fassbender, a much more dynamic performer than Zellner in a much meatier role, an ex-outlaw reluctantly shepherding Kodi Smit-McPhee’s love-struck Jay. Like Damsel, Slow West was a series of encounters with re-imagined western character tropes. Unlike Damsel, each scene carefully built on the movie’s themes of trust and fate, and several were intensely dramatic. It also had a great villain in Payne (Ben Mendelsohn), which Damsel is lacking. And despite its title, it wasn’t nearly as slow as Damsel.
Edwin: I second all of the above praise for Slow West, and also applaud its superior musical score (by Jed Kurzel, with the titular song from Django Django) and more interesting “damsel” in Caren Pistorius’s Rose, the richness of whose own outpost shootout makes Penelope’s feel even more dull. It’s as if the Zellners were inspired by John Maclean’s feature debut, but were unable to develop that spark beyond a hollow homage — with the exception of gorgeous natural scenery, though it too is no Slow West. I look forward to Maclean’s next film with great anticipation, but as you noted after the credits rolled on Damsel, the Zellners should consider bringing in an outside writer for their follow-up.
Bruce: Yes, I think if they had a writing partner to challenge them and enrich their writing, the Zellners might also have the necessary bandwidth to up their directing skills, which show some promise. Damsel has moments of beauty and just-right timing, but it’s highly inconsistent. And speaking of scenery: Where is this ocean just outside of an isolated desert town? It made for nice locations to start and end the movie, but it was geographically confounding. In fact, I think “confounding” is a good word for Damsel overall. I’ll generously give it a C, but I’ll direct our readers to go rent Slow West. It’s well worth $2.99 on Amazon Video.
Edwin: In line with not knowing from whence any character came (the exception being Henry’s Baltimore past), the ambiguity of where the action takes place is indeed a head-scratcher. Maybe Oregon? It wouldn’t take much to sketch in that detail, but such basic storytelling expectations elude the Zellners this go-round in their ill-informed attempt to buck genre conventions. To help redirect their suddenly worrisome future, I’m in favor of them forming a filmmaking collective with Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), Ana Lily Amirpour (The Bad Batch) and other young writer-directors with strong technical foundations whose scripts stand to benefit from other perspectives, perhaps each other’s. I’ll co-sign your Slow West rental recommendation and dock Damsel half a grade to a C-minus for the brothers’ inability to capitalize on Kumiko’s promise.
Grade: C. Rated R. Starts July 6 at Grail Moviehouse
(Photos: Magnolia Pictures)