Sundance 2018: Damsel Review

Two men sit in the middle of nowhere, stagecoach tracks leading off towards the horizon both east and west. Two men sit on a ramshackle bench awaiting their transportation. On the left is a older man dressed as a preacher (Robert Forster) who is both perturbed and spent, heading back East after failing to promote his religion to what he calls “the savages”. On his right is a younger man (David Zellner) looking to reinvent himself, heading West to an unknown future that surely will be better than his present. In a bout of existential determination, the preacher strips, gives up his clothing to the stranger beside him, and perpendicular to the path walks off alone, dressed in nothing other than boots and red underwear off to meet his maker in the wilds.

So begins another strange, kind of wonderful tale by David and Nathan Zellner, the quirky and at times caustic filmmakers who last found success with Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter. If that film felt akin to Jarmusch’s Mystery Train mashed up with the Coen’s Fargo then this latest work, Damsel, plays like Dead Man and True Grit with a dash of Raising Arizona for good measure.  Echoes to masters aside, the Zellner’s nonetheless manage to craft their unique blend of drama, comedy, pathos and surrealism into an engaging if slightly uneven work.

Still, there’s plenty to love here. Following the prologue the film is divided roughly in half, with stars Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska having their own moments to shine.  There’s some terrific scenes with character actor Joseph Billingiere who passed away mid-2017. There’s a tiny horse named Buttercup that plays a major role, and a guitar that somehow manages to survive for a large portion of the journey. There are explosions and betrayals, arguments and awkwardness that all somehow mesh into something that feels like a fireside story told to both amused and warn.

With moments of slapstick interspersed with the grandeur of the locale, Damsel is overall a work that undermines many of the tropes associated both with the genre in which it is set and the general dynamics connoted by the title character. From Pattinson’s broad take as Samuel Alabaster to Wasikowska’s uncompromising take-no-shit fiery role as Penelope you’ve got a fine combination that’s feels simultaneously surreal and welcoming. The soundtrack by Austin band The Octopus Project helps with the weirdness, colliding acoustic instruments with droning elements that feel both organic and industrial all at once. 

This is a film that may not be for everyone, but if you’re willing to lope along with this motley bunch you’ll be in for a lot of fun. The story meanders along with a gentle gait that may be taxing for some, but it seems commensurate with both the time period and landscapes in which the film is set. This deliberate pace also means that when the fireworks do kick in they feel even more heightened, elevating the work even further.

Damsel is a delight, a strange mix of revenge, retribution and unrequited romance, all packaged in a way that feels both honorific of other iconoclastic artists and very much its own thing. As both Pattinson and Wasikowska continue to tackle roles a far cry from their more mainstream choices we get to revel in the fun that they bring to their roles in this strange land that the Zellner’s bring to welcoming viewers.


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