In their last film, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the writing-directing duo of Nathan and David Zellner found their inspiration in an urban legend that spawned around the Coen Brothers’ classic crime film Fargo. Now the Zellner Brothers are following up their tale of a modern myth by diving deep into another myth, that of the American Wild West with Damsel. This gritty little western subverts expectations at every possible turn and turns out to be a funny, twisted take on the tall tales of the American id.
Damsel opens with a rather striking, unusual scene, one that establishes clearly the offbeat tone that the Zellner Brothers will bring to the rest of their oddball western. Two men sit there waiting for a stagecoach, an old preacher (Robert Forester) muses on the nature of waiting before shedding his cloth and wandering into the vast rocky terrain. That stranger besides the preacher, a drunkard in search of work, dons the clothes of a preacher and becomes Parson Henry (David Zellner).
Washing in on the shore is wealthy businessman Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who along with his miniature horse Butterscotch will traverse the rugged terrain of the west with Parson Henry in search of Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom Samuel plans to marry upon their reunion. Samuel speaks mightily of his love and how destiny shall bring them together, how his present of a miniature horse will aid him in winning over her heart. While the trek to Penelope is arduous, it’s the arrival to her location that will prove to be the most challenging aspect of this long journey.
The plot of Damsel is quite low-key, rarely attempting to ramp up tension or grand dramatic stakes. The film works so well because the Zellner Brothers utilize the shorthand of genre to establish a certain set of expectations that they’re going to viciously undermine in the most unexpected of ways. One of the biggest moments of Damsel is entirely unexpected, a total jaw-dropping moment that warps your opinion of everything that came before. It’s really a wicked little twist that blends tragedy and comedy, and changes the entire course of the story that’s to follow.
Adding to the comic tragedy of Damsel is the film’s impeccable casting, headlined by Pattinson and Wasikowska. Robert Pattinson brings a naïve enthusiasm to his western travel with a heart brimming with love, and it continues Pattinson’s reinvention from teen heartthrob to indie darling. Wasikowska once again shines as Penelope, and the dramatic twists of the film’s second half give the acclaimed actress plenty of room to display many sides to her world weary character, none of which involve being a simple damsel in distress. David Zellner has plenty of moments to shine as the unscrupulous Parson Henry and even Nathan Zellner gets into the act with his big rugged doofus Rufus. In a bit part that seems to just exist to simply make me happy, Russell Mael, lead singer for the legendary band Sparks, appears as a yodeler there to serenade a local hanging.
Between Damsel and Kumiko, the Zellner Brothers are continuing to establish themselves as the offbeat mavens of independent cinema. Damsel taps into some themes that are strikingly relevant to today’s broader social conversation, but to give away specifics would constitute spoilers. Damsel is at times so heartbreakingly tragic, so darkly comic, and always unpredictable.
Equal parts tragedy and comedy, the Zellner Brothers’ Damsel subverts expectations at every chance it gets in an offbeat exercise in genre led by strong performances by Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska.