“You gave me mixed signals.”
The Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, have been making films (mostly shorts) together since 1997, but it wasn’t until 2014’s beautiful and bittersweet feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter that the world began to take notice. (A small part of the word to be sure, but still.) Their latest film once again mixes tragedy, humanity, and comedy with brilliant results, but this time the emphasis is most assuredly on the laughs. Fair warning though, Damsel‘s brand of comedy is equal parts dry and devastating.
Samuel (Robert Pattinson) is a man in love, but the late 19th century is a dangerous place filled with all manner of villainy. The object of his affections, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), has been abducted by one such scoundrel and secreted away to a cabin in the remote and desolate West, and it’s there where Samuel’s heading with Parson Henry (David Zellner) and a wedding gift in tow. It’s a miniature horse named Butterscotch, named after Penelope’s favorite candy, and the plan is to give it to her after he dispatches the bad guy and the parson officiates an on the spot ceremony. If adventure is bad planning, as Norwegian explorer Roald Engelbregt Gravning Amundsen once said, then Samuel’s in for the adventure of a lifetime.
You’ll get no more plot details here, and ideally you’ll avoid them elsewhere before watching Damsel as the film is a wonderfully meticulous exercise in zigging when you expect it to zag. Yes it’s a western with a familiar-enough setup, but the journey is one of beautifully unmet expectations brought to glorious life with deadpan precision by all involved. It’s laugh out loud funny at times, but it’s equally capable of leaving you with your eyes wide open and jaw dropped.
Pattinson is an absurd delight between his high-pitched sincerity and dogged determination, and he’s balanced by a serious and angry performance from Wasikowska. The Zellners wrote and directed the film, but they each play pivotal roles on screen too. David’s parson is a weak man who’s never met an aspiration he couldn’t drown in alcohol and regret, and Nathan plays a gamey mountain dweller whose rash decisions complicate everyone’s day just a little bit more. Robert Forster also turns up briefly in a prologue delivering a masterclass in comic minimalism while setting the stage for what’s to come.
It’s a methodically paced tale — no surprise from the Zellners — but its humor, observations, and occasionally brutal acts of violence are more than enough to keep most viewers glued to the journey. From the opening credits onward — the sequence features Samuel and Penelope dancing with unconvincing smiles — the film shows an interest in the contrast between telling and showing. Per Samuel, Penelope was kidnapped because she’s a “prized possession,” and after seeing a photo of her the parson says “You’re a lucky man. This is a real prize.” It should come as no surprise that Penelope doesn’t quite see herself the same way.
Adam Stone‘s cinematography matches the film’s tone with beautiful landscapes that seem to constantly be pushing back. The coastline is rough and foggy, the hills hold hidden dangers, and the horizon promises only more of the same. Similarly, the score by The Octopus Project layers in music that moves between the serene and foreboding.
If Damsel‘s title seems a bit too obvious for the premise, well, that’s the point. The truth on any given subject is a matter of perspective, and one person’s wedding gift is another person’s incredibly useless extra mouth to feed. Go into the film knowing that while it’s not what you’re expecting it is very funny and very wise. And if neither of those appeal may I also remind you it features an adorable miniature horse.