Berlinale Review: Damsel (2018)

For some good fifty to sixty years, Western films dominated Hollywood. With stories primarily set in the second half of the 19th century in what became known as the “American Wild West”, these were often tales that not only placed men against the harshness of their environment but also against one another. Be it Native Americans, bandits, bounty hunters, lawmen, mounted cavalry, settlers, or whatever other prominent groups of that era, everyone seemed to be pitted against the other in a survivalist, power or moral-based struggle that often had very clear sides. At least in the film world.

In “Damsel“, brothers David and Nathan Zellner propose, however, a different way of looking at the genre. At first glance, everything seems to be precisely what we know: an old preacher leaves town (the mesmerizing Robert Forster) and a hopeful newcomer (David Zellner himself) arrives. The cynical and worn out religious figure believes he has already served his fair share of time in this rugged land, while the freshly arrived man hopes for better chances in life.

The stretch of land where they find themselves in is perfectly framed by Adam Stone’s (“Loving” and “Midnight Special”) cinematography.  So otherworldly is this land, that it is at times evocative of a “Star Wars” movie. The camera, focused on these man’s faces, tells us plenty about them. It’s a powerful opening and, and undoubtedly the best scene in the film – which, well, can also work against it.  Forster, in his brief on-screen minutes, gives life to a memorable character, and his departure makes us wonder where else could this story possibly go from here. Perhaps we peaked too soon…

But enter Robert Pattinson’s Samuel, carrying both a guitar and a rifle, searching for a man who can help him on his mission. He’s a stranger in this town and can’t quite take his liquor. There’s something both awkward and fop about him, and yet he seems to have a set of talents and skills that have allowed him to get this far. His fiancè, he claims, was kidnapped by evil men, and he must rescue her. He may not be your typical western hero, but here’s a man determined to reach his goals. The once newcomer, now a make-believe drunkard preacher, is the man he pays to help him find Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) and finally bring this loving pair together in matrimony.

There’s something cartoonish-like about the setting of this town: everything looks precisely like what we’ve seen in other films of the genre, and yet not quite. The bold bright colors in the stores’ banners, the “freak-circus-like” bathhouse scene, a miniature horse named Butterscotch, an execution-by-hanging scene that seems to come straight out of a satire comedy. Gradually, the Zellners add layers to this story and uncover sides of their tale that make us question what we’re looking it. Is everything truly as we’re led to believe it to be? Or is this directing duo playing a trick on their audience, twisting this genre to their liking?

Relying on witty and self-deprecating dialogue and silly-but-effective comedy sketches, “Damsel” quickly abandons much of what would make a western film, and embraces satire. Much of what Mel Brooks did with “Blazing Saddles” is present here but, without spoiling much of its story, the Zellners add some contemporary zest to their tale by bringing the woman to the forefront: think of it like a feminist-western.

Wasikowska is a great choice to play a woman who makes us question the whole premise of the film’s title: is she truly the damsel – in distress –  others believe her to be? And because she can look both soft and feisty, both in control or in dire need of support, one wonders. And yet, she builds a character that is absolutely sure of who she is and how to get things done. Joseph Billingiere, in his final role before his death in June 2017, plays Zacharia, a Native American man who, just like Penelope, subverts everything the genre has done before to women or Native peoples, for decades and decades on end.

Even if, at moments, the story seems to neither fully embrace its comedy nor the genre it deconstructs, leaving audiences waiting for scenes to entirely develop and for the pace of the film to pick up, there’s something very refreshing about “Damsel”. It never takes itself too seriously – and neither should viewers in order to better engage with it and fully appreciate what it has to offer – but makes one question how many stories and narratives we simply took for granted in the past. And that’s a nice accomplishment.

(Photo still courtesy of Strophic Productions Limited)

Directors: David Zellner (also known for “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”) and Nathan Zellner (in his first credit as a director in a feature film).

 

 

 

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