Sundance 2018: David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel

On Film / The Daily — Jan 25, 2018

“Few filmmakers earn the adjective ‘offbeat’ as definitively as the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, whose new Western (premiering at Sundance), Damsel, is a goof on the genre in which no trope is left unmolested and nothing goes the way it’s supposed to,” begins David Edelstein at Vulture. “Probably you should clear your head and go in thinking you’re going to see a conventional Old West kidnapping adventure story. Then you’ll be delighted or possibly irritated when it turns out to be a clown show with instances of carnage. I was alternately delighted and irritated, though mostly a very happy camper.”

“Who would have guessed, just a few years ago, that Robert Pattinson might become one of our most reliably offbeat, consistently fascinating movie stars?” asks A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “He’s easily the best thing about Damsel, a quirky, poky, half-comic Western from the sibling filmmakers behind recent Sundance alum Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Pattinson plays an eccentric businessman who hires a drunken charlatan preacher (Kumiko’s David Zellner) to travel West with him, and then to help him find and marry his sweetheart (Mia Wasikowska). Unusually structured, Damsel has one great surprise in store for viewers—a turn that feeds right into the film’s inspired subversion of genre tradition. But the film backs itself into a kind of corner, too, repeating the same joke over and over again, because the (admittedly strong) point it’s making is in the repetition.”

“The movie unfolds with an invisible wink, yet the pace is so stately and deliberate that at moments one is tempted to call it glacial,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “The rhythm is no accident; the Zellners know just what they’re doing. (They must be major devotees of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.) Yet Damsel, if I’m going to be honest about it, is droll and touching and amusing and a little boring, all at the same time.”

Pattinson “plays his character like a good-natured, scrawny teenager who has watched every John Wayne western, but wouldn’t be able to get his gun out of the holster in a duel,” writes Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “Wasikowska’s Penelope, boasting a bent shotgun and a spirit of independence, emerges as a western character for the ages by defying the standard female archetype found in the genre. ‘I don’t need anybody’s saving!’ . . . With their specifically droll but no less engaging style, the Zellners’ witty script touches on everything from over-reaching masculinity to cultural vampirism, and more topics absent since the birth of the western. There are few films that make one rethink the entire genre that came before it, but with their continually surprising, feminist bent approach, the Zellners have succeeded in doing so.”

“Cinematographer Adam Stone, who transformed the rural setting of Take Shelter into an apocalyptic wasteland, here captures a rich landscape of deep red desert formations and dense forestry that takes on a Kafkaesque dimension as various lost souls wander deeper into the brush,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn.

“The filmmakers’ long-time musical collaborators The Octopus Project have fashioned a score which is minimalist but also haunting,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “Produced on period-specific instruments such as banjos and musical saws, which were then doctored with studio effects, the aural landscape proves to be as quietly disorienting as Damsel’s increasingly strange and occasionally goofy odyssey. Along the way, the Zellner brothers make cheeky observations about racism, destiny and gender inequality that are so offhand that they feel almost subliminal, woven into the fabric of their quirky little concoction. It’s only at the end that Damsel’s casual spell fully takes hold, leaving us an unmoored as the characters.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy finds that “the writer-directors are so intent on upending expectations and startling the audience that the effort shows far too much and, in the weak second half, ends up being terribly self-conscious.” More from Gregory Ellwood (Playlist, C+), Victor Morton (Salt Lake City Weekly, 2/4), and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com). Filmmaker gets a few words from the Zellners but has more questions for editor Melba Robichaux.

Update, 1/27: For Dan Schindel, writing for Vague Visages, Damsel “feels like a cousin of Meek’s Cutoff and Slow West, combining the former’s undercutting of traditional masculine ideals with the latter’s casual vibe and dry sense of humor.”

Update, 1/30: For Stephen Saito, Damsel is about “the trouble with romanticizing anything or anyone too much, including the genre it is a part of.” Damsel also features “a charming new addition to the writer/directors’ (literal) stable of animal stars with the miniature horse Butterscotch, who practically runs off with the film.”

Update, 2/6: At the Film Stage, Jordan Raup talks with the Zellner’s “about balancing the perfect tone, the formation of Pattinson and Wasikowska’s characters, playing with tropes and archetypes of the genre, capturing a vibrant, mystical landscape, themes of feminism and cultural reappropriation, and more.”

Updates, 3/5: “Feminist revisionism in the western is all the rage,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey. “You may be wondering how Pattinson’s puppy-like fantasist fits in with such a reckoning, and that’s very much the way the Zellners want it. Their storytelling does tip towards the wrong side of slack once or twice, and Nathan slightly lets the side down with his walk-on role as a trigger-happy outdoorsman, but luckily David has a much subtler handle on a far more crucial part. . . . What kept me smiling right through this overturned odyssey is that the men in it aren’t brave pioneers or scary outlaws or any such thing—they’re incorrigible nerds, a century before the word was coined.”

Damsel doesn’t go quite where we think it will,” writes Jonathan Romney for the Guardian, “but then, surprise detours are rather to be expected in this kind of anti-quest story, and the film sometimes comes across—for all its grotesque, scabrous or surreal touches—as a little more benign than it might have been. . . . . What the story might lack in earnestness, the photography, by Jeff Nichols’s regular Adam Stone, has a beauty that keeps the faith for a genre that refuses to die entirely.”

More from Sean Gallen (Upcoming, 4/5) and Patrick Gamble (CineVue, 2/5).

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