Producing a western in the 21st century is tricky. If your film attempts to demythologize the genre, or undercut its white supremacist roots, the now meaningless adjective ‘revisionist’ will be slapped on it faster than it took Clayton Moore to don his mask; if you stick to the traditional approach, you’ll be affirming white supremacy and endorsing Clint Eastwood’s politics. Either way, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything new to do with the genre.
Sibling filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner try hard to negotiate a third path in Damsel (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 29) but ultimately fail. Despite being beautifully shot and brilliantly scored, their film lacks the most important ingredient of all: a decent screenplay.
It’s almost 5 p.m. on what looks like a hot afternoon somewhere in the desert southwest, and two men are waiting for the next stagecoach. One is a preacher (Robert Forster) whose mission — “spoon feed(ing) religion to the savages” — has come a cropper. The other is Henry (David Zellner), a younger man hoping for a fresh start out west following the death of his wife.
His do-over begins sooner than anticipated when the preacher suddenly disrobes, abandons his bible and marches resolutely into the distance wearing only his skivvies. Surprised but recognizing an opportunity, Henry assumes his identity.
Meanwhile, it what appears to be a completely different part of the continent but is apparently a coastal region just down the road apiece, Samuel Alabaster (Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) rows ashore with a crate containing a miniature horse named Butterscotch. The pair meander into a dusty frontier town where a man wearing nothing but a barrel is hanged for the crimes of “skullduggery, skullthuggery, and skullbuggery”, another man with deformed arms plays the piano, and a kitten sits in a spittoon. Someone has been watching El Topo.
Alabaster has an appointment with (Parson) Henry, who — in unexplained fashion — has made known his availability for weddings and funerals. Meeting in another Jodorowskian scene — this one involving a massed array of crabs — Samuel and Henry plan to rescue Alabaster’s fiancé Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) from the mountain man holding her captive, after which nuptials will ensue and the new couple will, presumably, live happily ever after. Of course, things do not transpire as Samuel imagines they will, and Damsel’s story spirals further and further into absurdity – while oddly abandoning its surreal elements altogether.
Shot in Utah and Oregon, Damsel looks stunning thanks to cinematographer Adam Stone’s luscious widescreen camera work, and The Octopus Project’s banjo and clawhammer-style guitar score is exemplary. Alas, this is not enough to repair the damage caused by the screenplay’s clumsy attempts at arch humor, nudge nudge wink wink drollery and anachronistic language, which includes the word ‘scumbag’ (coined in 1957, according to Merriam Webster) and a character asking the (possibly) pregnant Penelope “do you know if it’s a boy or a girl.” In sum, Damsel is lovely to look at and delightful to listen to, except when its characters open their mouths.