Westerns may not be as popular as they once were, but their impact on pop culture and their notions of masculinity have remained embedded in our world. The picture of a rugged cowboy on a horse, often rescuing a damsel in distress, is something most everyone is familiar with.
“Damsel,” the latest film by the Zellner brothers, works almost as a parody of a Western. The film first follows Samuel (Robert Pattinson) and a parson he recruits (David Zellner) on their journey to rescue the love of Samuel’s life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He wants to marry her, painting an ideal picture of their would-be life together to the parson, and he believes he can be her hero.
The real hero of the story, however, is not Samuel or any of the supposed chivalrous men in the film. It’s Penelope.
To see such a strong female character on screen handling her day-to-day struggles at the hands of such oblivious men — fighting off repeated marriage proposals and the sort of “damseling” that they all put on her — was cathartic and thought-provoking. And though Penelope’s tired of it, she’s also more than capable of standing her ground.
The story questions stereotypes of masculinity. All the men in the film have an over-exaggerated idea of themselves that would be glorified and rewarded in a traditional Western. The cowboy rescues the damsel, and the damsel is forever thankful. That’s not Penelope’s story, though, and she doesn’t want it to be.
The only real issue with her character is that she’s not as fleshed out as she could be. While the narrative makes a point to highlight her as the toughest of the bunch, we don’t get much about her story or who she is outside of her rough exterior when she’s not fighting off idiots. That said, we also don’t get much of anyone else’s background, either, which at times makes the level of engagement in the film fall slightly. Ultimately, we’re rooting for Penelope, mostly because we want her to get away from all these ridiculous and terrible men, but we have no idea where she’s going afterward.
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However, it also is clear the backstories are kept hidden in large part to make the reveals throughout the film more surprising. And the story does interesting work following different characters throughout, almost like it’s teasing the possible rise of a traditional Western protagonist.
While the film may begin as a Western, though, there are a few aspects that work against the genre. This includes shots from the beach, a break from common Western settings, and more comedic elements. The shift in narrative and play on comedy was a welcome approach, making the story lighter and more fun to watch.
Overall, the film overall is a fun tale if you’re not a die-hard traditional Western fan. But the story doesn’t diminish its predecessors; it’s clear there are parts of it that revere the genre. Rather, it just provides an alternate look at gender roles so commonly displayed in Westerns, giving the damsel a chance to shine in her story.
“Damsel” premiered at South By Southwest on March 12. It screens again at 11:30 a.m. March 16 at Zach Theatre and at 11:30 a.m. March 17 at AFS Cinema. A wider release date hasn’t been set. Grade: B+