Directed by David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
The “damsel” in question is Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), and she does not need to be saved. Though she’s the titular character, Penelope doesn’t enter the narrative until halfway into the movie, and her role is really to be the eye of the storm, the center around which all the toxic masculinity spins.
Through the course of the movie, Penelope will lose one husband and endure the marriage proposals of three more, all of whom end up dead or only a step above dead. The first of these marriage proposals comes from Samuel (Robert Pattinson), a big-eyed, weak-stomach’d hopeless romantic. The second will be her brother-in-law, a man who’s just as close to shooting her dead as he is to asking for her hand in marriage. Finally the third is from Parson Henry (co-director David Zellner), a disgraced, depressed man of the cloth.
For each of these men Penelope is the object of their affections. They think highly of themselves, it seems, and highly of their own declarations of her beauty. When one says she’s “pretty as a flower,” it is to him an unattached expression of pure love, but it is to her (and to us) a somewhat sinister pronouncement of intention. Penelope is the land they seek to colonize, and in the end she will free herself of their burden, fulfilling her right to self-determination.
The character we follow into all this is the most egregious offender, Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson). He immediately stands out from what we expect for the protagonist of a western, both by his sensibilities and by the way he seems to appear out of thin air, arriving with a miniature horse on the foggy beaches of the northern Oregon coast.
Samuel is a businessman for whom money is no problem. He tracks down Parson Henry and pays him a handsome sum to officiate his wedding with Penelope. The first level of conflict, from his point of view, is that she has been kidnapped by a man named Anton Cornell (Gabe Casdorph). Parson will protest any criminal activity necessary to bring Penelope back but Samuel is stubborn and attempts to remind him of the importance of this mission and his pure, undying love. To Samuel there is nothing greater.
The eventual reveal that Penelope does not share these affections becomes almost inevitable considering how drawn out it is. There is a spectacular sequence at the midpoint of the film as the story hands off the narrative from Samuel to Penelope and completely reframes the first half of the journey.
Samuel must acknowledge his own misguided expectations, and it’s too much for him to handle. His abrupt departure from the story gives way to a strange buddy comedy between Penelope and Parson… but even he isn’t as sympathetic as we might initially believe considering how he’s contrasted with Samuel early on.
Damsel is a western comedy in the same vein as a Coen Brothers movie, something like True Grit (2010) but more with the sensibility of A Serious Man or The Hudsucker Proxy. These movies have a dry wit that often combines with a silly slapstick quality. Despite taking themselves quite seriously, the characters in these stories expose themselves as fools, and when their vanity dies, oftentimes so do they. These are characters defined by their ego and delicate way of seeing the world. When the story begins there is no question in their minds about what is right and wrong, and when it ends, they die clinging to their own point of view, unable to adapt to a new line of thinking.
These characters often have to die, it seems, to demonstrate how incapable they are of admitting fault or of developing as people. They are one-note characters limited by their own lack of nuance.
Up Next: The Finest Hours (2016), Kid-Thing (2012), A Star is Born (2018)