Directors David and Nathan Zellner may have upped the star power with Damsel, their Western follow-up to 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, but no one could accuse them of making a star vehicle. Even in his brief cameo in the prologue, Robert Forster mostly mumbles semi-coherently before making an abrupt, undignified exit. Then, when we meet the cast’s biggest celebrity, Robert Pattinson, his character is quickly revealed to be something quite different than the cowboy hero the genre would seem to call for; David Zellner himself, in his role as a cowardly preacher, has at least as much screen time as his ostensible lead. Finally, Mia Wasikowska shows up to obliterate any remaining expectations that this is a traditional Western. Damsel may be one note in its cockeyed revisionism but it squeezes that note for all it’s worth.
Pattinson plays Samuel, a young man of equal parts wealth and naivete. He’s ventured into the rough frontier to rescue Penelope (Wasikowska), his betrothed, who has been kidnapped by brutes and taken to a cabin in the hills. In a nearby town, he enlists an alcoholic clergyman, Parson Henry (David Zellner), to accompany him on his mission so that, once he’s saved Penelope, they can be wed immediately.
Samuel’s arrival in town makes the Zellners’ mockery apparent. Striding down a dirt street lined with glorified shacks, his clean clothes, clean guitar, clean gun and clean shave stand out like the lone tooth in a mouth full of bleeding gums. Add to that his dainty inability to stomach whiskey and it’s clear the only thing about him befitting his “man of the West” attire is his confidence, unearned as it may be.
But the Zellners’ mean-spiritedness isn’t sour. Rather, there’s an almost prankish, Bugs Bunny wackiness to their derision. Samuel’s equine companion, a pristine, groomed miniature horse named Butterscotch adds to the cartoonish effect. But when Penelope shows up brandishing a rifle with a bent barrel, the Looney Tunes nature of Damsel hits its peak.
Of course, there’s more to that crooked rifle than just an Elmer Fudd reference. It’s also a self-aware skewing of the most potent and most oft-employed phallic symbol in the history of cinema. The Zellners aren’t just out to lampoon Western tropes for the fun of it (though it’s plenty of fun). They’re deflating the entire mythos of American masculinity, so much of which originates from puffed up tales of the Wild West like Samuel’s. They’re mining similar terrain John Maclean did in 2015’s Slow West but with less of an interest in pathos and more of an eye toward torching an entire swath of social convention. When Samuel describes Penelope’s firmly stated and unequivocal objections as “mixed signals,” the line is funny but the truth it exposes about male entitlement isn’t.
As Damsel progresses, Penelope moves closer and closer to center stage, beset on all sides by comparatively juvenile men, from Samuel to Henry to others who come and go like Nathan Zellner’s Rufus and the late Joseph Billingiere’s Zacharia. The more she tries to talk things out with them, the more they seem to act on unquestioned assumptions. Soon, the Zellners knowingly have her slip into anachronistic speech like, “We had a great relationship,” making literal her more advanced ability to elucidate her own feelings. This point, which Damsel makes early and often, is the crux of the film’s identity as a feminist Western; this intelligent, courageous woman would be better suited to the world she lives in if it weren’t populated and controlled by so many moronic men.