Damsel is a deconstructed Western comedy that has a solid first half of Western, but once it starts deconstructing just falls apart. The film follows Samuel Alabaster, played with wonderful detail and quirk by Robert Pattinson, as he searches for his love Penelope, forcefully acted by Mia Wasikowska, with a drunk preacher and a miniature pony named Butterscotch.
Directors David and Nathan Zellner set out to shake up the Western drama by adding an element of humor and shaking up the conventions of the genre and storytelling in general. The first half of the movie has the Western comedy down pat. The cinematography captures the landscapes and interiors with equal saturation and beauty. The presentation, at first, gives off the aura of romantic adventure. The film’s main plot opens on a shot of the coast line, rolling and ominous. A figure in a boat is rowing from the void of mist onto shore. As it comes closer we see Pattinson and a large crate. As the waves crash around him, he unloads the crate and cracks it open. A blonde miniature pony walks out of the box: Butterscotch.
This kind of comedy is throughout the entire film. Pattinson acts Samuel with such earnest romanticism that the weird quirks of his come out to be hilarious. From the way he takes off the guitar around his torso to a love song he wrote for his true beloved, Pattinson not only makes us believe Samuel’s love, but makes us love Samuel for it. Playing with Western conventions of romanticism and adventure, plenty of laughs are to be had throughout Samuel and his drunk preacher friend’s journey. Although the comedy is present throughout, the first half of the story has the strongest center as it rests on Samuel’s capable shoulders.
Once we get to the second half of the movie though, things aren’t too good. There is an admirable attempt to shake up the patriarchal norms steeped in the Western genre by placing the story on Penelope. I like the idea quite a bit, and done differently I would’ve been more satisfied with the results. But the second half lost me. Wasikowska acts with strength and determination that endured through a great loss her character deals with.
It’s an interesting direction for the story to go, except this is a Western, Southern drawls and all. Wasikowska’s accent kept fading in and out. Sometimes it was all you heard and other times it was barely used. It was super distracting, and you could tell she was trying harder sometimes to execute the accent than deliver a believable performance. It’s not entire Wasikowska’s fault though. The script maintains the laughs but loses real direction with Penelope. The interactions between her and the drunk preacher, Parson Henry, aren’t nearly as funny as they were with him and Samuel. Penelope doesn’t have the quirks and tics Samuel has. Penelope is a completely grounded and dramatic character in a comedy. Sometimes that works, but it doesn’t really stick the landing here. It’s strange, but even though the premise of Damsel is to have a strong woman wrangle the story from the romantic, male hero, the part with the strong woman was barely given enough impact to be impressive as a progressive step.
The atmosphere and comedy can be found easily though. The score, by The Octopus Project, emphasizes the off kilter, folksy tone the film is going for, sometimes even better than the film. With weird electronic effects over banjos and strings, it’s evident but not obvious. The textured noises color the film’s atmosphere nicely with the cinematography and story. And the comedy, an eclectic mix of Western sensibilities and slapstick, is consistently entertaining.
Although in theory I like Damsel, in practice it falls shorts of what could’ve been a milestone Western for a progressive age. Even though it doesn’t quite hit the mark, the acting and comedy is strong enough to entertain the audience throughout. And even if that doesn’t work out, I can tell you that Butterscotch the miniature pony is in almost every scene. Watching Butterscotch is a delight.