NOTE: This is a reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival. Damsel opens in theaters on June 22nd.
I don’t think the audience here at the Sundance world premiere of the Zellner Brothers’ wacky comedy-Western Damsel knew what to expect. In fact, I know they didn’t from the grunts of disapproval I heard from the folks around me. While they applauded the extended introduction of the directing duo, with a mention to their prior outlandish Sundance offerings including bizarre Fargo riff Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, I don’t think it registered with the crowd that they could get stars like Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska to be in anything quite so weird.
Boy, were they wrong.
Damsel is this year’s Slow West, a comic oater with inspirations pulled deep from the Blazing Saddles well. It’s not a comedy classic like Mel Brooks’ film, and certainly its examination of the pityless Old West frontier are much darker. But for those willing to give it a chance they will find this comedy landscape isn’t so barren.
The “damsel” in this case is no shrinking violet; Penelope (Wasikowska) is a fearsome frontier woman, more than capable of taking care of herself. She’s also particularly good at fighting off men’s advances. But we don’t exactly know that right from the start, after a rip-roaring hootenanny of an opening in which she tears up the dance floor alongside a toothy, unbearably happy Samuel (Pattinson). An odd prologue featuring a hilariously deadpan cameo by Robert Forster sets up the film’s offbeat tone as a warning; this will not be the movie you expect it to be.
The first hour is largely shrouded in mystery, as we mosey along with Samuel and Parson (David Zellner), a priest and local drunk he’s recruited for a heroic mission. Penelope has been abducted into the mountains by a foul brute and Samuel, who may be a few horses short of a full stable, plans to rescue her and marry her on the spot. He’s got the plan all figured, mapped out in the dirt with some horse dung and a few twigs. He’s bought the most beautiful ring and, most importantly, a unique gift in a miniature horse named Butterscotch. Samuel’s arrival in town with the boxed up pony is the first sign that our hero might just be a well-meaning idiot of Quixote-esque proportations.
When Penelope finally re-enters the picture to kick off the second half, the film is instantly hers and the focus rightfully shifts. Here she is, after this bizarre shootout has changed her life and our perceptions of Samuel, surrounded by men who think she is in need of their protection. But every single guy who shows up, whether it’s her kooky brother-in-law (Nathan Zellner) or a curious Native American, only serve to mess things up worse. Her protests only seem to inspire them to pursue her father, except for Parson who is just sort of bumbling along as a punchline.
The Zellners take a gamble by largely playing the film straight, which works to establish its ironic tone. The jokes fly pretty fast but are largely hit or miss. The best gags tend to be visual; Butterscotch is always within view, even during deadly predicaments; the dead tooth sitting smack in the middle of Samuel’s smile. Pattinson is definitely in on the gag; it’s safe to say we’ve never seen him quite like this, playing a man whose stubborness and male ego shroud how dumb he really is. It’s also another feisty performance from Wasikowska, helping the Zellners pick apart at the perceived masculinity of the Old West. The title may be Damsel, but it’s Wasikowska who saves the day when needed most.