Sundance Notebook: ‘Damsel’ is a backwards western
I feel guilty reviewing “Damsel,” the latest off-kilter comedy from the Zellner Brothers, who surprised Sundance with a Coen Brothers ode, “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter,” a few years ago. I had not seen “Kumiko,” though I had had every intention of doing so when I first became aware of it, and I believe that if I had, I would have been more prepared for their latest. But I feel guilty because, for three reasons, I drastically underrated “Damsel” upon first viewing and, though it has risen in estimation in the days since, it feels wrong to base a review on a reaction that is not quite immediate.
I suppose it’s a rarity to glimpse behind the curtain, if you will, and understand what critics think as they watch films, but I feel it’s crucial here to understanding my thoughts. The first thing to know is that I watched “Damsel” at its premiere, which puts added pressure on critics who enter the screening with zero understanding of how the film has been generally received. It’s an unfortunate truth, but our conceptions of films, even and perhaps especially critics’ conceptions, are shaped by the opinions of our peers, and to enter into a film with no metric of others’ thoughts creates a pressure that is difficult to shake. The one signal one may get as a critic is the degree of walk-outs in a theater, especially a public one (as this one was), and in “Damsel,” either because of its rather languorous pacing or its tone of absurdity that, for some reason, audiences dislike and critics like, there were a number of walk-outs, I believe the most I saw at the festival.
The second thing to know is that I love westerns and understood the film to be a traditional western comedy; that was a mistake, as the film is something of an anti-western, deconstructing and challenging the genre’s tropes while sticking somewhat true to the formal elements of the genre. What I mean is this: “Damsel” takes place in the west (so west, in fact, there’s water, a welcome visual relief that added a strange sense of haunting to the film), there are horses (and a miniature horse named Butterscotch!) and there is gun violence and a sense of morality. Robert Pattinson (“Good Time”) is something of a western archetype, the young and charming singing cowboy à la Ricky Nelson in “Rio Bravo,” and Mia Wasikowska (“Crimson Peak”) plays his damsel, for whom he comes to rescue from a kidnapping plot. There are sidekicks and villains, and even a mentally wayward western vet in the prologue in Robert Forster (“The Case for Christ”), who hasn’t been this entrancing for a long while.
My personal penchant for the genre had two distinct effects. The first was that, out of fear of falling for a mediocre movie just because of its genre, I began to actively look for flaws (and in fact, in the beginning of the film I really loved everything I was seeing). The second was that the film, which I understood at first to be a classical western, rejects conventions of the genre, and I just felt confused. IndieWire critic Eric Kohn tweeted after the screening that “The great thing about the Zellner brothers movies is that they lead you to believe you’re smarter than them and they outsmart the shit out of you.” I’m all for rapid rug removal, but my bare feet confused the cold tile underneath for the majesty of the brothers’ trick.
The third thing to know is a quick note, and shouldn’t be conflated for genuine criticism for the film, but I suffered a brief bout of depression during and after the screening that would undoubtedly shape my opinions of the film simply because I wasn’t paying enough attention. This is all not to say that the film is perfect. We need feminist westerns, but this film can feel like the filmed version of a think piece or like homework. Its message is clear after one or two of its key instances, but its insistence on belaboring its morality extends the film into being nearly two hours. But this is a film that will grow upon its most ardent detractors. There’s simply too much good stuff here, from a hazy and psychedelic but stubbornly western score by The Octopus Project, to Adam Stone’s (“Loving”) reverent cinematography. Pattinson and much of the men are goofy fools, seemingly acting in a totally different movie than Wasikowska, who is deadly serious throughout. But as the Zellners pull back the rug on us, their plans become much clearer and much more effective.