A man (David Zellner) waiting for a stagecoach witnesses an old preacher (Robert Forster) lose hope, apparently along with his mind, stripping himself of his clothes and running off in his union suit. Later, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) will find this man drunk in the dunes wearing said clothes and recruit him to officiate at the nuptials of himself and his "Damsel."
Cowriter/directors David and Nathan Zellner ("Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter"), who both costar in their film, have taken the classic American Western and turned it on its head. They lay their story down like a brick path where, for every two bricks lain, one is picked back up and placed at a right angle. By the time we get to their destination, we're on a very different path than the one we started on. Featuring a hilariously bonkers turn from Pattinson, "Damsel" upends the Western tropes of hero, villain and damsel-in-distress with a mid-film twist that radically alters our perspective.
The film opens with a prologue where Samuel woos Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) at a cakewalk (the band performing the lively dance music, The Octopus Project, also composed the imaginative score). Samuel later tells Parson Henry (David Zellner) he won Penelope's heart with his biting wit, commenting upon the inappropriateness of her having brought a pie to such an event. We are introduced to Samuel as he rows ashore with a wooden crate. Dressed like a dandy, with a distinct middle part and metal tooth, Samuel pries open the crate to release Butterscotch (Daisy), the rare miniature horse he's gone to great lengths to purchase as a wedding gift for his bride. Sweet little Butterscotch, named for Penelope's second favorite kind of candy ('because horehound wouldn't make a good name for a pet') is an inspired visual gag who persists in the Zellners' hodgepodge Western landscape.
Parson Henry soon learns that he's not only on board to perform a wedding, but to travel with Samuel to rescue Penelope from the Cornell brothers who have kidnapped her. He'll have many more surprises along his journey, the latter half of which he'll spend strapped into a dynamite vest. His escape bid appeals to Zachariah Running Bear (the late Joseph Billingiere) send up culture appropriation, his proferred gift of an arrowhead dismissed with 'What's wrong with you?'
Pattinson's romantic suitor is such wrong-headed lunacy, he is a constant delight, his rendition of his original wooing song, 'Honey Bun' ('you're the horseshoe to my hoof'), comedy gold. Wasikowska's Penelope, as it turns out, is no damsel (that would be another, male, member of the cast), a fierce feminist in the old American West. The second Zellner brother, Nathan, arrives on the scene as mountain man Rufus Cornell.
The film's tone changes in its second half, the Zellners' having set us up for a fart joke, only to pull the rug out from under us. This takes skill, but the aftermath is never as funny as what led up to it. "Damsel" begins as an out and out comedy, only to turn into something more thought-provoking. You may miss the belly laughs as it goes along, but this true original rewards in other ways.
An old preacher (Robert Forster) and a young widower sit, on a clear, hot day, in the middle of nowhere waiting for a stagecoach. Suddenly, the old man takes off his preacher’s frock, gives it to the younger man and walks into the desert. This begins a story of love, devotion, death and more in “Damsel.”
It is a western. It is a comedy. It is a road movie. “Damsel” is all of those things and, as such, it is the quirkiest western-comedy-road-movie to come down the pike in a long time.
Brother helming-writing team, David and Nathan Zellner create something unique in this modern interpretation of the Old West.
We see, after the preacher wanders off, scenes from what looks like a joyful event, a wedding maybe. Then, we are on the wild shores of the coast and a boat, holding a solitary man and a large crate, slides onto the beach. The man, named Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), unloads the crate an opens it, revealing a miniature horse named Butterscotch. The man takes his diminutive steed and walks into town.
There, he finds the man he is looking for – Parson Henry (David Zellner) – drunk and passed out. Undeterred, Samuel sobers the preacher up and they set off on his mission – to find and marry the woman he loves, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). This is about the time that the film changes direction and everything you were led to believe to be true is not. This makes for the outright fun of “Damsel.”
The cast is a true ensemble with the stars (very well played by Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska) sharing equally with talented supporting characters, including the Zellner brothers. There is nary a dull moment throughout and you invest yourself in these people. I give it a B.
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