The Western is one of cinemas oldest genres. Just about everything one can do in it has been done. Nevertheless, the Zellner brothers (Nathan and David), play with and invert the central tenets of the genre: the west is mystical and women need saving, creating an Odyssey-eque tapestry of archetypes and complex characters.
The film opens as two men sit on a stagecoach pick-up bench, or the old west’s version of a bus stop. One man is a broken downtrodden pastor (Robert Forster). The other is a pathetic drifter. The old man is leaving, the drifter is arriving. Within three minutes, the Zellner brothers unravel the mythology of the Western and the West. The drifter, “Parson” Henry (David Zellner), is enthralled with meeting a real-life “injun.” And as he grills the old man about their nature, he’s given crumbs. He’s told that some are “good” some are “lousy,” like most anyone else. And as the old man strips away his religious cloth, down to his undergarments, and hands them to the newly titled “Parson” Henry, he walks away into the vast loneliness of the American West. In three effortless minutes, the Zellner brothers (previously known for Kumiko) deconstruct the Western.
After the initial “coach-stop” scene, the title cards roll across the screen. And in their background, is Samuel (Robert Pattinson) and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) as they dance at a “cake” walk. Oddly, this might be the most powerful scene in the film. As the Octopus Project, a group brought in by the Zellner brothers, provide a stomping fiddled score, the two young “lovers” dance with each other. It’s an exuberant scene, in a sometimes odd-ball film. Later, this innocuous and jovial scene is given greater weight.
Damsel is split into two segments: Samuel’s Odyssey-esque journey and Penelope’s false female fragility rebuttal.
Samuel is Robert Pattinson’s most complex character. I didn’t think he could better than his stunning role in Good Time, but he’s exceeded it here. Samuel is attractive, driven, and love-struck. He’s also a cunning imbecile and a psychopath. He arrives in a row boat, landing at what appears to be some distant shore. He brings with him a miniature horse, a guitar, and an engagement ring. All are wedding presents for his beloved Penelope. During Samuel’s odyssey, he enlists Parson Henry to wed the two, and encounters every classic western archetype: the town loony, the pastor, the barkeep, the drunk, the whores, and the frontiersman. Throughout the film, Pattinson’s control of his accent, his ability to add complexity to an imbecilic character, and his comedic timing are new signs that Pattinson is more than that Twilight dream boy. He’s a risk taking actor dedicated to his craft.
The second half of the film is less a collection of western vignettes, rather it examines the fallibility of female fragility. Just as the initial sequence undermines the tenets of the classic western, the title itself is a sarcastic rebuke of the genre’s central mantra: the west is dangerous and women need to be saved. In fact, in most westerns, women are only valued investments. In a desolate area where “little” companionship exists, women are the “prizes” to be won and bartered with. On multiple occasions, both Parson Henry and Samuel refer to Penelope as a “prize” or “prized possession.”
The Zellner brothers wittingly latch onto this cliche. They create a western about a female damsel who doesn’t need to be saved. Instead, Penelope is probably more akin to the actual women who lived on those western plains. Those places were hard lands, and they needed harder people to settle it. Few people who went out to the west needed protecting, much less women. They went out there knowing the danger. And to that end, Mia Wasikowska is utterly exceptional in the role of Penelope. She’s the dominant figure of the film and provides the greatest emotional expanse. And as every man, from Samuel to Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner), to Parson Henry himself tries to bunk up with her: the “law” of the wild, through a sharp wit she remains autonomous.
Having watched Damsel three times, once through the Chicago Critics Film Festival, it has not only gotten better with each viewing, it’s also made me re-surmise my thoughts on Parson Henry.
For the majority of the film, his character is pathetic. A drunken idiot with questionable morals, who’s been using the death of his wife as a crutch, there’s little that’s attractive about him. Nevertheless, with each viewing he becomes more sympathetic. Many times doing it the wrong way, he’s a guy searching for companionship. He’s exercising the most basic human need, the need to be loved. The lack thereof, which made him a drifter. It’s made him into a person who’s destined to be miserable for the entirety of his life. The character is never noble, yet he’s always human. And while the assumption in saving a damsel is usually saving a woman, it’s Parson Henry who’s the one in need of protection. It’s Parson Henry who’s wailing from a tower, wailing as an “old man with broken teeth, stranded without love.” He is the Zellner brothers’ Damsel, the one who needs saving.