John Wayne is the epitome of the cowboy hero in the Western genre. Steel-eyed, laconic, single-handedly bringing justice to a lawless frontier. The films of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah complicated and corrupted this heroism with crooked characters who invented their own morality and rules. Ever since, the genre has been incapable of coming back to those simple, black and white times.
Damsel confidently claims an important place in the history of the Western by creating a new ideal of heroism. The story follows idealistic businessman Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who is determined to rescue his kidnapped fiancée, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He sets off into the heart of wilderness with his adorable miniature horse, Butterscotch, and employs the help of the alcoholic pastor, Parson Henry (David Zellner). Everything gets turned upside down when it’s revealed that Penelope was never held hostage but rather settled down with another man, much to the bewilderment of Samuel.
First and foremost, this deadpan comedy does not content itself with the usual sepia visuals we have grown accustomed to in contemporary Westerns. Damsel is a gorgeous, technicolour homage to the epic, panoramic cinematography of John Huston and Sergio Leone. The audience is treated to stunning desert vistas and verdant mountain landscapes delivered with a rich colour palette.
In the first half of the film, Samuel fills the pastor’s head with notions of true love and persuades him into helping in reuniting him with his star-crossed lover. When the truth is revealed, Penelope rejects the fantasy Samuel has projected on her and decides to break off on her own, taking the pastor as her own hostage. As she makes her way back to civilisation, she encounters more men who want to objectify her, define her and own her but she remains independent and resilient.
This brilliant subversion of gender roles pushes Damsel into a new branch of the genre as a woke Western. Both leads pour everything into incredible performances, Pattinson playing the deluded romantic and Wasikowska the whip-smart heroine. The Zellner brothers combined alternate between slapstick comedy and poignant drama to send the genre into a new, more modern sunset.
Damsel does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip from Damsel here: