Essays · Movies

‘Damsel’ is a Period Piece About a Modern Violence Problem

David and Nathan Zellner have created a Western that puts the inherent violence of the incel movement squarely in its sights.
Magnolia Pictures
By  · Published on November 19th, 2018

This is the nature of Robert Pattinson‘s star power: he can take an unconventional role in an indie Western — a Western mostly forgotten come award season — and still avoid any question that he is one of the most interesting leading men in Hollywood. Damsel, the latest from the writer-director duo behind Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, would make an excellent companion piece to The Sisters Brothers. Like that film, Damsel features Hollywood stars in a slow-moving Western that finds their voice in the idiosyncrasies of their characters; unlike that film, Damsel has its finger on the pulse of one of the darkest elements of 2018. In mostly skipping over a critical discussion of David and Nathan Zellner‘s film, we did ourselves a disservice, because Damsel has plenty to say about the perverse violence young men visit upon the women they obsess over.

We’ve seen several acts of domestic violence attributed to the sexual desires of young men in the past decade. This has put the spotlight squarely on incels, a group of self-proclaimed involuntarily celibate men known for spouting misogynistic hatred towards the women they desire and framing sex as a cosmic struggle between the “decent” people of the world and the worst forms of gender stereotypes. In April, Washington Post writer Melissa J. Gismondi contrasted this community against the rise of “feminist and anti-rape movements” in recent years, suggesting that the incel community was less an aberration than a growing sickness in our country. “For the first time in the history of white patriarchal culture, white men’s relatively unfettered access to women’s bodies is being challenged at a mainstream societal level,” Gismondi wrote. “And many men don’t like it.”

This has led to multiple shootings, each of which demonstrates that possessing a woman — or at least her life — is usually the endgame for many in this community. The most famous of these is one of the deadliest: in 2014, California resident Elliott Rodger engaged in a series of drive-by shootings near UC Santa Barbara after recording a series of self-aggrandizing videos about his sexual worth.  In April of this year, a similar act of violence took place in Toronto when a self-described incel male driving his van into a crowd, killing ten people. That person even went so far as to praise Rodger in a Facebook post prior to his killing spree, claiming that he and his fellow incels would “overthrow all the Chads and Stacys” in the world (a reference to the men and women most often the subject of the community’s ire). Finally, earlier this month, a man opened fire on a group of women in a yoga studio after years of posting misogynistic YouTube videos and original songs online.

So perhaps a sadly American problem decades in the making could only be captured in a Western. As many critics have noted, the Zellner Brothers’ Damsel is a story where the bottom drops out. In the first half of the film, we follow Parson Henry (David Zellner) and Samuel (Pattinson) on the journey through the wilderness; through conversation, we learn that Samuel is making this trip across the countryside — alongside Butterscotch, a miniature horse he has shipped across country at great expense — to finally tie the knot with his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). After framing itself as a cowboy romance, the Zellners pull out the rug: Penelope is already happily married to a local outdoorsman, and Samuel’s triumphant raid on their cabin causes the death of at least one innocent man. From there, Samuel’s movie becomes Penelope’s film, and we suffer alongside her as she navigates an ocean of bitter, jealous, and stupid men.

It’s hard not to see those sentiments echoed in Samuel, the would-be protagonist of Damsel. Much has been said of the way the film subverts traditional Western depictions of masculinity — there’s nothing noble about the men in this film, who are prone to bouts of fatalism and are constantly confused by Penelope’s resilience — but these comparisons root the film in the history of the genre, not in the sexual politics of the current date. Sure, Samuel is an inversion of the stereotypical big city gunslinger, but he’s also a nightmare, a man so thoroughly convinced of his own worldview that he would rather put a gun in his mouth than accept Penelope’s rejection. What follows is a standard mix of gaslighting and victim-blaming. “Why can’t you see he’s manipulated you?” Samuel screams to a distraught Penelope after the initial firefight winds down. “I’m the victim here! I came here to save you!” When she offers one final and firm rejection, he glowers, hissing that she had given him “mixed signals.”

Not surprisingly, Samuel views the world through a twisted prism of masculinity, using a language of barbarians and brutes to describe Penelope’s husband and pitting himself as the dashing hero coming to her aid. Rodger described himself as a “supreme gentleman” in the manifesto discovered after his 2014 Isla Vista shooting; in Damsel, Samuel convinces his travel companion that he just wants things to be “nice.” “This kidnapping’s the most terrible thing that’s ever happened to me,” Samuel tells Parson at one point, providing an early indication that the rescue of Penelope has far less to do with her safety than his status quo. When the dust settles, we’re left to wonder if we are so easily confused by a pair of clean pants that we were willing to believe Samuel as the hero from the very beginning. Those who simply credit Damsel with being non-traditional miss the only points in the film worth making.

There’s an eerie modernity to Samuel’s violence, the way he demonizes and visits violence upon others because he finds them unworthy of his possessions, and this makes for yet-another tricky performance in Pattinson’s young career. Unsurprisingly, Pattinson is more than up to the task, giving us both the charming lead we expect in a Western and the monster that the Zellners have hidden underneath the surface (for his part, Pattinson has called Samuel a “psychopath” in interviews). Ultimately, Damsel may be a bit too long and a bit too meandering to join the ranks of the classic modern Westerns, but it can and should go down as one of the few films to truly align itself against the violence — domestic and otherwise — that potentially lurks behind every modern sexual encounter.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)