Berlinale: Damsel

Directed by David and Nathan Zellner
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner and Nathan Zellner

by Marko Domazet

Take the cornerstones of a classic western – a hero on a rescue mission, a drunken sidekick, a native American, a damsel in distress – defy the expectations and hey presto, you’ve got Damsel.

Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson), an uptight dull-as-dishwater pioneer, ventures across the frontier to save and marry his beloved Penelope (Wasikowska). Aiding him on his mission is a drunken fake priest (David Zellner), a miniature horse and of course every possible pre-conception one has about Westerns. Yes, we’re talking Native Americans, canyons, lone fur-clad woodsmen, hookers and horizons as far as the eye can see. As the story evolves, the lines between the heroes, villains and lovers blur in a deadpan fashion, and Damsel quickly makes it clear that it’s a film keen to deliver the unexpected.

In many ways, it succeeds in doing this. First and foremost, the characters are not what you’d expect them to be. Pattinson’s character is everything you’d want from a hero – good-looking, seemingly intelligent, heart-in-the-right-place kind of guy, and the Zellners waste no time in making him unravel. From seeing him masturbate over a picture of his beloved, to performing an awkward love song he wrote about her, it quickly becomes clear that Samuel Alabaster is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Pattinson takes on the challenge well and delivers a deadpan performance that at times is pretty solid. Wasikowska in the female lead, shows a lot of potential, but unfortunately her character is underdeveloped and seems to function on two levels – angry or hysterical. Still, it does go some way of shattering the preconception of damsels in distress that we were presented in 1930’s Westerns. If it had also played with some of the more updated interpretations of frontier women – strong, resilient, hardened – it could have really shown us a new preposition.

Secondly, the story has a fair few twists that will keep the viewers on their toes. Anything from hidden motives to unexpected encounters, aid in keeping the interest alive. These tools are used very skilfully and rarely feel contrived – like in life, twists just happen and the characters react to them.

Unfortunately, there are also a few things that just don’t work. The pace never quite picks up – the characters all seems to be marching to the same beat – and this is a problem in a film in a genre where the suspense is meant to hit you in waves. Westerns of this ilk would have big operatic moments to them, the landscapes and a handful of OMG moments; Damsel is a bit thin on the ground with drama. Pacing issues aside, the film would also benefit from a tighter story edit. More focus on the love story, more focus on the rescue mission, more focus on the perils the characters find themselves in. Finally, and this is probably my biggest issue with it, more work should have been done on the female lead. If the objective is to shatter the perception of damsel in distress, then the character needs more than just a rifle and a loud voice.

This is a well-made movie. Great landscapes, good story, entertaining to watch. A lot of wasted potential though, which for yours truly, left a disappointing aftertaste.


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