This movie lit the Internet critics on fire when it premiered at Sundance, so it was an easy add to our crowded list here at SXSW. Brothers David Zellner and Nathan Zellner were the writers-directors behind the TIFF hit Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter a few years back so of course people were aflame to see what they’d come up with next.
In Damsel, they give us a beautiful if vaguely set Western. Sam (Robert Pattinson) has just arrived in a crummy unnamed town – the kind of town that’ll hang you for skull duggery, skull thuggery, and/or skull buggery, but they’ll yodel for you first. Bathing is rare and tooth brushing is evidently unheard of, which are unfortunate habits in a people so fond of social gang-bangs. Sam, who very much looks the part of a gentleman, and who has arrived with “the Farrah Fawcett of miniature horses”, a lovely girl named Butterscotch, traipses through town in search of the forever-inebriated parson, whom he has engaged and will pay generously for his services. He’s here to marry his “true pure love” Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), and they’ve only got to battle the wilderness, stave off predators, rescue her from “scum-loving evil” and survive anything from an interrupted morning wank to a bent-gun fight in order to make his intended his wife.
The Zellner brothers aren’t too concerned about geographic or temporal accuracy, and nor should you be. Instead they’ve cobbled together the very best bits from every dusty corner of the genre and assembled them into a whole that is surprising and new. The score is amazing and cinematographer Adam Stone does some impressive work making Utah bend to his will. The film is more colourful and more lively than other westerns, and if ever there was a film begging us to forget what we know of the genre and start from glorious, scrubby scratch, this is it. But this is not just a film to keep you guessing, it also keeps you giggling, which it does in defiance of the genre. I wouldn’t call it absurd, exactly, but it’s a movie that’s meant to be enjoyed, and I think you’d have to be a pretty dedicated stick in the mud not to get a whole lot of enjoyment out of this one.