Sundance Film Festival
The Zellner Brothers are lunatics. I know this from personal experience. Over the years, they’ve made appearances at various film events in Austin, and I almost imagine them like Bigfoot by now. Mythic. Maybe not entirely real. They delight me in person, and it’s interesting to watch their films and see how their personalities inform the finished work.
Kid-Thing and Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter both feel to me like very dry jokes that are told more for the entertainment of the teller than the listener. That’s not a bad thing. In a way, it’s the same thing I love in Jim Jarmusch’s work, and he certainly feels like one of the filmmakers who might have been an important precursor for them. But they aren’t just doing the same thing over and over. Just because there is a wry deadpan to their work doesn’t mean that they’re playing everything at a single note. The first two sequences in DAMSEL, their latest movie, marked such a dramatic departure from anything I’ve seen of theirs that I sat forward, curious to see where they were going.
I was well-rewarded, too, because Damsel is a wry, charming, smart commentary on gender roles and romantic expectation — a goofball western featuring some terrific star turns from both of the Zellners as well as Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. In the film’s opening scene, we see an Old Preacher (Robert Forster) waiting for a stagecoach heading one direction, talking to a younger man heading in the other direction. The younger man wants to head out west so he can start over. He lost his wife and his child, and he feels like he’s due a new beginning. The Old Preacher warns him that the frontier is not the solution he thinks it’s going to be, and then he just sort of breaks down, leaving his clothes behind with the younger man. The opening titles then play out over an unrelated scene, a barn dance with a small community, everyone happy and laughing. There in the midst of it, we see Samuel (Pattinson) and Penelope (Wasikowska) together, and they dance with this beautiful emotional abandon, the two of them just lost in it. It’s all in slow-motion, and they never say a word, but it sure does feel like a slice of heaven in an otherwise hard world.
The film’s title hints at the game the Zellners are playing here, but they’ve built this as a very clever series of reveals. The film picks up after the credits with Samuel riding out into some rough territory, armed with a wad of money, a fistful of provisions, and a wee tiny horse named Butterscotch. He has arranged to meet Parson Henry, a man of God, who is to accompany him on some business. When he finds Henry, he’s shitface drunk, and we recognize him as the younger man who picked up where the Old Preacher left off, declaring himself open for all kinds of spiritual business. Whether he’s qualified is a very different issue, one that begins to assert itself as he escorts Samuel away from the town. Samuel explains that he loves a woman, and that woman has been kidnapped, and he is determined to rescue her. All he wants the Parson to do is marry them once she’s been rescued. Samuel has secrets of his own, though, and by the time they end up face to face with Miss Penelope, the situation is very different than we were led to believe.
The film gets funnier as it goes, and a big part of it is because of the escalation of things. The more we get to know the truth about each of these characters, the more ridiculous things get. It also helps that Nathan Zellner eventually shows up as Rufus Cornell, a trapper who has his own ideas about who to rescue and why. He’s like a big, goofy American Jemaine Clement, and it’s a big comic performance. Both Pattinson and Wasikowska are perfectly tuned in to the comic wavelength of this film, and it works because there’s nothing about the film that overtly announces itself as a comedy. It’s easy to call an original comedy voice “weird,” but that’s not really a fair descriptor. There’s nothing weird about the way these people behave. It’s unexpected in many cases, but it’s not weird. There’s something wonderful about introducing a thoroughly modern attitude into a historical situation because it throws the conventional thinking of the time into stark relief. That’s a big part of what Damsel does so well. Penelope (whose name seems like a very intentional evocation of the types of women who would end up in peril from week to week in serials, in dire need of rescuing) is not what we are led to expect, and the more time we spend with her, the less she fits any of the conventions of what we think about women in the west.
While the idea of strong female leads in movies is nothing new, it feels like we’ve turned a corner into a new age of how we play with iconography, and that’s where I’m most disappointed by the weird, stupid, generally toxic male anger in pop culture right now. When men get angry about female Ghostbusters, it’s because they feel like they lose something when icons are inverted or subverted, or just plain burned to the ground. That’s crazy, though. That’s the entire point of pop culture. We remix. We digest. We present things in new contexts, new clothes, new skin. We push the old through the filter of the new so we can understand who we were, who we are, and who we might be. We do it in serious art, and we do it in silly art as well, and both are equally valid ways of processing big ideas. Damsel is slight and sweet and funny, but it manages to offer some really smart observations on the way men attach themselves to the idea of a woman rather than the actual woman. When Parson Henry stands before Penelope, begging her to love him because he wants to start over, the “love” he’s offering has nothing to do with her. He has a hole he cannot fill, and he wants someone to do it for him. Anyone. And that’s not really love.
Handsomely made, with an evocative score by The Octopus Project that reminded me of Neil Young’s terrific work on Dead Man and robust photography by Adam Stone, Damsel may not offer up any conventional heroics, but there’s something epic about a film that that finds its hero in a woman who’s strong enough to demand that she be given the love and respect she deserves — a love that sees her as a partner, not a prize.
Running time: 113 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic