Selection of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival


The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “damsel” simply specifies “a young woman.” It is such a diminutive characterization made all the more worse when frequently paired with the modifier “in distress.” You know the trope of the helpless maiden who cannot fend for herself and needs a man and marriage to rescue her. Kicking up scratchy dust in the western genre, the Zellner Brothers rousingly debunk and demystify that stereotype to create a dark comedy of their own pitch and prickliness. With humor as dry as the topography, Damsel is the kind of film that sneaks up on you like a snake in the weeds.

The window dressing for the genre is all here. Boosted by a knockout atmospheric score from indietronica artists The Octopus Project and searing cinematography from Adam Stone (Midnight Special, Take Shelter) Damsel looks and feels the part as a proper western. Opening on two men, one young and one old, biding their time with conversation waiting for a stagecoach, that aesthetic bubble is burst as soon as the first character opens their mouth to speak. Plain-speaking grizzled legend Robert Forster lays out an opening diatribe about the state of things that couldn’t be more defeated and pessimistic versus the clear eagerness of the newbie on his way to his own supposed promised land. Talk about a tone-setter.

Damsel progresses to present a clean and dignified suitor named Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) arriving to a town of agape ruffians. Adorned with a wardrobe finery, a guitar, a rifle, and a miniature horse that stands as a living conversation piece named Butterscotch, the man considers himself a tenderfoot troubadour and an aspiring businessman.

LESSON #1: THE ADAM’S APPLE IS ONE MEASURE OF A MAN — Folks, apparently you need to see what cowpokes are packing between their chins and their collarbones more than between their waists and their knees to truly determine the measure of a man. Those crickets you hear are all the people impressed by this sexual characteristic. Just don’t tell Samuel that as he flaunts what he’s got for you to be impressed.

Shrugging off the more accurate pussy labels, Samuel has come west heartset to rescue and claim his kidnapped fiance Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) as his bride. Samuel purchases the services of the lowly Parson Henry (David Zellner) to be his posse-mate, second gun, and future wedding officiant. The flustered and failing man of the cloth is now hitched to this eccentric weirdo and struggles to offer his own audible musings of the ways things should be.

Hijinks along this meandering, yet unpredictable journey lead to fallouts and misunderstandings against the perceived “code of the prairie.” Damsel is jolted by a crossroad of tagalongs, plot twists, and competing affections. Plenty of men have eyes for Penelope, including her assumed kidnapper she’s been shacking up with and the nearby training woodsman Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner).

LESSON #2: THE PROBLEMATIC STATE OF HAVING MULTIPLE SUITORS — Oh, the boundaries broken by competition! Belief in love is one thing, which Samuel has warped in spades, but make sure the lady feels the same way before pressing your unrealistic and undesired expectations for marriage. At the same time, don’t flirt with women who are spoken for or widowed in mourning. It’s entirely unsavory and deserves the harsh response it gets. Don’t make the target of affections the guilty one if it’s the pursuer’s mistake.

Robert Pattinson is an absolute hoot across from David Zellner’s straight-man witness. The dashing Londoner dives entirely into character and squeezes every bit of juice from this flamboyant role. Watching his self-confidence piss-and-moan against the hurdles placed in front of him is choice entertainment. Though she arrives later, Mia Wasikowska steals the film from everyone. Smashing the title’s trope, Penelope is the one pragmatic character that doesn’t have her head either buried in the sand of denial or aloof in unrealistic clouds. Her truth-telling and counterpunches hit like a shotgun butt to the face towards the deserving imbecilic men in her way.

The Zellner Brothers (David and Nathan) are the writing and directing team behind Kumiko The Treasure Hunter. They dance all over this landscape, but the steps keep dawdling when the music runs out. What starts as an attuned and near-slapstick comedy with Damsel peaks early upon a excellent swerve. The overbearing regret and guilt that follow that pull down the momentum of chatty humor that was established towards the beginning and middle of the film. The third act peters out and trudges this film to a tedious and somewhat lackluster finish where the glee is lost.