Cinematheque's season begins with Nathan and David Zellner's inventive new take on the Western. Info
Nathan and David Zellner's new film Damsel, which kicks off UW-Cinematheque's fall 2018 season, is a self-conscious remix of the Western genre, transformed from its gritty nationalistic origins into a kind of slapstick rom-com. Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) stars as a dandy pioneer whose backstory is nicely shaded in an early scene. He saunters into a saloon, guitar slung across his back, and orders a fancy porter beer, only to find that the institution only serves whiskey. These are universal issues we're still dealing with today. After he mines the bartender for information, we learn Samuel is in town to hire an alcoholic upstart preacher (David Zellner) to officiate his wedding to his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who waits somewhere across the desert.
As Parson Henry and Samuel learn a little something about each other, Samuel is revealed as cold-blooded in other, more insidious ways than the brute force of early western villains and antiheroes. He's like a frontier sad-boy—a flawed-protagonist with unlimited stores of cash, a smooth tongue, and a gun he's so-so at shooting. Then, halfway through the story, Penelope rips the narrative out from under Samuel in a tremendous turn that is Damsel's best, most intense moment, especially given the generally slow pacing of the rest of the film.
Unlike Damsel's predecessors, late westerns like McCabe And Mrs. Miller, that began to deconstruct cool displays of masculinity as a political critique of America's toxic expansion, Damsel makes a lateral move in radicalizing the genre by leaning in to being extremely dialogue driven. The movie is so brimming with drama that the stony faces of John Ford heroes would be treated in this world as absolute weirdos. That being said, it's true that pioneers must have had emotional lives, so perhaps this portrayal is closer to reality than the trope-filled media that helped cement the glorified image of America's burgeoning empire. The unique fluidity of identity that was available to white people moving to the West is a major theme of Damsel, and the audience watches characters change their lives in mere seconds. In the first scene, Henry transforms as if via magic ritual from a depressed widower into a depressed priest, when the priest before him on the way out gives up his bible and clothes.
While the film goes to great lengths to show you that it's a progressive, revisionary western, constantly proving that the eponymous damsel does not need to be saved, it's possible that the movie may falter somewhat in its portrayal of Native Americans. One indigenous character, Zacharia (Joe Billingiere) shows up towards the end, after Parson Henry is constantly curious and asking where the "noble savages" are throughout the film. It's not necessarily for me to say, but it's one aspect of the movie that bears further discussion. —Reid Kurkerewicz