Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The term “good guy” has been experiencing an upswing in popular usage lately – though not always for good reasons. It’s a concept that’s been around for decades. Women have heard it countless times before as an excuse for over-aggressive chivalry in men. “He’s a good guy,” they say. It presumes the assumption that we need rescuing. In the era of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the descriptor is newly refurbished, now weaponized to fit a toxic type of masculinity. It’s this modern, enlightened consciousness on which writer/director/actors David and Nathan Zellner base their subversively-titled western, DAMSEL. The Brothers channel the absurdist comedy of Mel Brooks and the aesthetic of Wes Anderson while spinning a story that’s rebellious, radical and refreshing.
Wealthy pioneer Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) is a “good guy.” He knows exactly how to deflate a heated provocation with a soused bar patron (Morgan Lund) in seconds flat. He’s absolutely smitten with the prettiest girl in all the land – Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). So much so, he’s traveled far across the harsh Frontier to bring his true love a miniature pony named Butterscotch (played by Daisy), a sappy song from his heart, and a sparkly engagement ring. As he and town drunk Parson Henry (David Zellner) brave a treacherous journey through the wilderness to reach Penelope, secrets and truths emerge about the two men, escalating the situation at hand.
The Zellners give audiences a fresh twist on the genre. Their dialogue – how they envision old west speak – is among the best. Words like “pepperbox,” and lines like “things are gonna be shitty in new and fascinating ways,” are infinitely quotable. Dialogue delivery is absolutely crucial and the actors really sell the goods. Pattinson brilliantly dips into physical comedy. Wasikowska delivers the perfect “straight woman” act amidst the lunacy surrounding her. David Zellner plays his character at the perfect level of pathetic. And Nathan Zellner excels at providing Yosemite Sam-style machismo as Rufus, the brutish brother of Penelope’s true love.
There’s a narrative reveal about a third of the way through – one that comes as a rather ballsy surprise given the marketing. Rest assured, the Brothers don’t manipulate audiences with any false dramatics involving Butterscotch the mini-pony, Penelope’s hat-sporting donkey, or any horse for that matter. They know better than to do so.
On the whole, this is a film finely attuned to the now. The filmmakers follow the comedy rule of threes when it comes to a gag involving Penelope’s safety in the company of other “good guys.” They ingeniously skewer this type, bringing out the inherent buffoonery of these men’s actions. The Zellners bring an anachronistic, modern take on women in those times, seeing them not as possessions, but as badass, autonomous and pioneering individuals. Juxtaposing those narrative choices, costume designer Terry Anderson clothes the actors in period specific garb to ground the story’s more bombastic notions.
Technical aspects like their use of the widescreen format, static camera shots and dissolves are also highlights. Augmenting the off-kilter atmosphere are Adam Stone’s sparkling cinematography, which captures the beauty and cruelty of the landscape, and The Octopus Project’s captivating score.
While I can’t help but wonder what DAMSEL’s sentiments would’ve looked like coming from a female director (I suspect equally as interesting), the Brothers Zellner really skewer their own gender’s foibles and faults, mining the comedy of it in a delightfully quirky genre picture.
DAMSEL opens in limited release on June 21.