The Wild West is a place of fantasy long divorced from any truth that inspired its folklore. Movies have painted a gorgeous yet ferocious world of vast and vivid mesas and plains, inhabited by mysterious natives, dainty damsels in distress, black-hatted outlaws, and gruff but noble cowboys who ride high, like knights of this treacherous terrain. In our imagination, The West is a place ripe with opportunities to be a hero; the dangers are just part of that adventure. But in the sharply witty Western Damsel, buying into this fantasy means buying into deadly delusions of grandeur. Here, every man wants to think he’s the hero of this story, and every one is wrong.
Written and directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, the brothers behind the lovely and odd Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, Damsel has the jaunty energy of a Coen Brothers comedy but with a cynical edge that’s uniquely their own. We first see this in the meltdown of a soured old pastor played by Robert Forster in the film’s stark start. In the middle of a seemingly endless stretch of desert, this haggard man of God gives up hope, then all his worldly possessions to a confounded stranger (David Zellner). Handing off his Bible, the pastor notes its missing pages, explaining some were used for “kindling, rolling papers, and hygiene.” There is no toilet paper in the wilderness, and the Bible’s pages were more useful for cleaning than comfort. This is the West this 1870s adventure unfurls.
The pastor sets the West up as a hopeless place where fools seek good fortune but find only crushing disappointment. Yet with this gear and a half-gone Bible, the newly minted “Parson” Henry (Zellner) will get a sorely longed for fresh start on a quest with a wealthy pioneer. Wearing a wide smile, jangly manner, and a dapper suit, Robert Pattinson gambols onto the scene as young lover Samuel Alabaster, pulling behind him a darling miniature horse named Butterscotch. This whimsical detail underlines the unhinged fantasy these characters carry to the unwelcoming West. Where horses are used for travel and work, little Butterscotch is a senseless luxury, as well as a wedding gift for Samuel’s intended Penelope (a sharp Mia Wasikowska).
To read the rest of Puchko’s review, go to Riot Material magazine: https://www.riotmaterial.com/damsel/
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