Indie Western Proves Enjoyably Unpredictable
Many moviegoers like the familiar. The success of the Marvel franchise and the Star Wars universe and the multi-decade career of James Bond are just a few examples of this cinema-going phenomenon. Long-established characters with pre-existing relationships are the filmic equivalent of your favorite pair of torn blue jeans — comfortable, reliable. Viewers’ expectations are fulfilled from the moment they buy their tickets. I’d like to order the usual tropes with a side of minor surprises, please.
However, there is a slice of the movie-going audience that is looking for something different, something that subverts their expectations, something that zigs when they expect it to zag. Damsel, the indie western from the writing and directing team of David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter), is just such a film. It begins as a quirky frontier tale streaked with absurdist humor and then takes a turn toward something darker. The film unfurls in two distinct halves with a twist at its midpoint that redefines all the audience has seen so far and sends the narrative in an entirely different direction for its second hour.
Robert Pattinson (The Lost City of Z, Good Time) plays Samuel Alabaster, a young man of questionable intellect who has embarked on a romantic quest to marry his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Samuel intends to hire a parson en route to Penelope, so the nuptials can commence when the two lovers are reunited. The ring has been purchased. The wedding gift (a miniature horse named Butterscotch) has been acquired. The only missing piece is the bride. To say that things don’t go according to plan would be a serious understatement.
In the prologue of the film, an aging preacher (Robert Forster) is waiting for a stagecoach with a young man who lost his wife in child birth. Growing increasingly impatient, the preacher strips off his clergy clothing, throws it at the young man along with his Bible and storms off into the desert in his long johns, expecting the young man to don his outfit and take up his heavenly work.
The scene proves to be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, a distillation of the themes to come. If you strip away the exterior that defines you to the world, it doesn’t necessarily change who you are. We are many things to different people, and point of view ultimately defines who we are. It takes more than a mere change of clothing or change of scenery to redefine our role in the lives of others. And above all else, remember that appearances can be deceiving.
After being one of the pretty faces behind the Twilight franchise, Robert Pattinson is proving to be one of the most interesting and talented actors of his generation. He routinely sheds any semblance of matinee idol vanity for gritty parts in films like David Michod’s The Rover and the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time. In Damsel, he once again disappears into his role, but he’s given less with which to work, and Samuel remains a bit of a cipher, a one-note persona.
The true MVP of the film is Mia Wasikowska who proves that behind every man there’s a woman, but that woman may not need the man as much as the man needs her. The screenplay deftly reverses gender roles in this frontier tale without calling attention to the fact. Samuel is the naive, romantic seeking his true love while Penelope is the tough-as-nails realist who doesn’t need a man to find her place in the world.
Damsel is definitely an acquired taste. That’s not intended to sound snobby or elitist. It’s simply a fact. If you’re looking for another Hostiles or Unforgiven (both excellent films in their own right), you will be disappointed. Damsel does not aspire to be an epic western. If you’re a patient film-goer and give the narrative time to unfold, Damsel proves to be an original take on a time-worn genre. It’s lack of familiarity is its virtue. Throughout its 110-minute runtime, I had no idea where the story might take me. And that’s a high compliment, indeed.
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