The Austin, Texas-based Zellner brothers make strangely humorous films that defy categorization as much as they reference cinematic history. Their feature debut, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” took the Coen Brothers’ film “Fargo” as literal inspiration for the lead character. Their follow-up film, “Damsel,” plays with the Western genre to make some incisive commentary about the modern state of gender politics.
David and Nathan Zellner bring a sense of methodical stillness to “Damsel” that might make some audiences uncomfortable, as they work with a deliberate pacing that simultaneously frustrates, wrings humor and allows room to breathe and take in the glorious natural vistas. This indie deconstruction of the Western has shades of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” in some of its wry comedic moments.
David Zellner stars as Parson Henry, a man from back east, seeking a fresh start. He’s also not a parson, he just happens to be waiting for a stage coach with one (Robert Forster) who gives up the cloth and wanders into the desert, leaving Henry with his suit, Bible and identity. When the eager young Samuel (Robert Pattinson) comes into town to collect the parson, he’s hired to officiate his wedding. He scoops up Henry and makes his merry way.
We discover, along with Parson Henry, that the bright-eyed, lovesick young man isn’t exactly on the level when he reveals that the planned proposal to his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), involves kidnapping her back from a rival, Anton, and then staging a wedding on the spot. Parson Henry becomes his unwitting posse, despite his protestations, and ends up involved in a love triangle that spirals into lethal violence.
Penelope is no damsel. She’s a self-possessed woman making her own choices who has no patience for the macho posturing of Samuel, or Anton’s brother, Rufus (Nathan Zellner), a skins-clad mountain man.
“Damsel” is the kind of film you admire without fully enjoying. There’s a layer of artifice in performance and dialogue, as well as the slow plotting. The intention is to reveal the deconstruction of the genre’s conventions to the audience, but it prevents the audience from getting swept away by the story and scenic landscapes. There are some oddball laughs throughout, but whether or not one responds is a question of personal taste.
“Damsel” is a film that’s intellectually stimulating and beautiful to look at, but a bit too arch to truly fall in love with. Nevertheless, the Zellners have assembled an excellent cast, fully committed to the cause, and as performers, they hold their own across from Pattinson and Wasikowska. Pattinson, who is on a run of working with daring indie auteurs, takes a hold of this role with vigor and pours himself into it. He’s incredibly game for anything, and his talent elevates the project, as does Wasikowska, who proves herself a true Western heroine.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska and David Zellner. Directed by David and Nathan Zellner.
Rated R for some violence, language, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Bottom line: Western with a few wry comedic moments
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