In “Damsel,” sibling filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner have created the perfect western for the #MeToo era, delightfully twisting and torquing the traditional woman-in-jeopardy narrative to create a clever, comical and uncannily relevant allegory.
Robert Pattinson plays Sam Alabaster, a naive, bright-eyed knight-errant who, in the 1870s, arrives in a small town in the Pacific Northwest to rescue Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who has been kidnapped and taken prisoner. Enlisting a preacher named Henry to help him in his chivalrous quest, Sam has hatched an elaborate plan, whereby the two will ambush the unwashed malefactors and liberate Penelope, at which time Sam will drop to one knee, present a beautiful garnet ring and propose, and Parson Henry will pop out from behind a nearby tree to perform the marriage.
Think of it as a 19th-century flash mob. Indeed, modern sensibilities suffuse the entirety of “Damsel,” in which the American West is depicted as a space not just for geographical magnificence but existential madness. A thoughtful revisionist Western along the lines of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Dead Man” and “Meek's Cutoff,” “Damsel” owes just as much to the absurdist tone of the Coen brothers, possessing the same visual and verbal japery and, occasionally, absurdism for its own wearyingly ridiculous sake.
Without committing egregious spoilers, it's difficult to specify just how much Sam's plans go awry. Suffice it to say that his endearingly madcap scheme has left out one thing: the possibility that Penelope might have her own ideas. Portrayed by Wasikowska with equal parts annoyance, determination and admirable self-sufficiency, Penelope becomes an avatar for generations of women who have lived in constant danger of being saved, or at least changed for their own good. It's not much of a conceptual leap to connect the deluded and solipsistic idealism of Manifest Destiny to the valorizing fantasies that propel Sam's mission – a mission that, at its core, is one of narcissistic conquest and entitlement.
This is all very serious, but “Damsel” is also very funny, constantly undercutting its own classical conventions – the monumental settings, the dangers and rituals of male courage – with sharply observed humor, whether in the form of the tiny horse Sam brings to Penelope as a wedding present, or by droll one-liners evoking what would now be called colonialism and cultural appropriation. David Zellner, who co-wrote and co-directed “Damsel” with his brother Nathan, plays Parson Henry in a state of wide-eyed shock and creeping cynicism. This is a movie in which the de-rigueur baptism scene is of the preacher himself being dunked to sober up. (For his part, Nathan plays a would-be villain named Rufus, a fringed and furry mountain man reminiscent of the bear-skin-clad vagrant in the Coens' adaptation of “True Grit.”)
Gorgeously shot by Adam Stone, “Damsel” is a marvelous-looking picture, all the more so for the eccentric collection of faces the Zellners have found to populate their weird and well-timed flight of fancy. (The boldly non-period musical score, by the Octopus Project, adds to the film's loose, interpretive vibe.) Arriving when men of good will are learning, to their shock, just how much time and energy women waste in managing their expectations and unwanted attentions, the Zellners offer the refreshing image of a woman capable of resisting compliance, voicing her desires and, literally, drawing her own boundaries.
Things explode in spectacular fashion in “Damsel,” but in this case it's someone blowing up her dreams, so that nobody else can make them his own.