Review by Jacquelin Hipes
In a broad sense, the Zellner brothers’ Damsel feels like a direct retort to the classic John Wayne Western, The Searchers. Both feature a single-minded man setting out to rescue a kidnapped woman, casting himself as a noble savior in a reality that might not require one. Robert Pattinson stars as Samuel Alabaster, the Ethan Edwards of the piece, a lovesick young man looking to recover his intended from a romantic rival. Forming a two-man posse with the dubiously devout Parson Henry (David Zellner), he sets out across the wilderness with arms and the unconventional dowry of a miniature horse in tow. Along the way they first encounter the would-be kidnapper’s brother, before coming across a cabin sheltering Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) and her captor Anton (Gabe Casdorph). The skirmish that follows makes it clear that many of Samuel’s assumptions about Penelope and her desires were spectacularly wrong.
Pattinson carries off both swaggering confidence and bug-eyed incredulity with aplomb. Samuel affixed his world so resolutely to the conviction that he and Penelope would live out their own happily ever after; the destruction of that future appears to drive him mad, until you realize that he was a few bullets shy of a full load long before Penelope’s rejection. Channeling a variety of Good Guy stereotypes, he would be practically insufferable to watch bumbling through a rescue mission were it not for Pattinson’s good humor and sly self-awareness throughout.
Wasikowska takes control in the film’s second half as Penelope must deal with the aftermath of the confrontation between Anton and Samuel. She has no patience for the damsel-in-distress mentality inflicted on so many women of her era, turning instead to threats, persuasion, and deception to turn the situation to her advantage. Time and again she soundly rejects the interference of the men around her; here both antagonists and self-styled rescuers are both obstacles to her ultimate goals.
All of this may sound appealingly modern, yet Damsel never rises above a simplistic Western-comedy. Toilet humor and anachronistic cursing can’t pass for clever subversion of a genre, nor can the ham-fisted deployment of a girl-power narrative. A few cutting jokes suggest some greater, unrealized potential, although all of the gags that landed a more widespread reaction would have existed just as comfortably in a Judd Apatow production. The Zellners content themselves with reaching for low-hanging fruit, a lackadaisical approach at odds with the beautiful cinematography and laudable performances by their two leads. It’s a shame that the script provides such a shaky foundation for the stronger, more solid layers built on top of it, but unfortunately this Damsel is in need of rescue itself.