This isn’t your typical Western.
Damsel transports us to the Wild West in the 1800s and introduces us to an eclectic bunch of people from various walks of life. Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) involves the preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner), in an elaborate plot to propose to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). When we finally meet her, she doesn’t respond as one would expect. A cute mini horse named Butterscotch is also featured prominently throughout; she somehow makes their adventures all the more fun.
I really loved the unusual nature of Damsel. It’s funny without being too on-the-nose about its humor. It’s the type of dark wit that I really enjoy. The further the characters get into the story, the more ridiculous things become, which almost always makes for a good time. And Robert Pattinson is able to show off his humorous side, which I don’t think he gets enough credit for.
If you haven’t yet watched, Damsel, and are interested in a different take on the Western genre, I highly recommend checking it out. While you’ll probably see exactly where the film is going while watching it, it’s still a fun ride to be on.
Who is the Damsel Anyway?
One of my favorite aspects of Damsel is its unusual structure. For the first half of the film, we only hear of Penelope or see Samuel’s recollections of her. He speaks on her behalf and waxes on about his love for her to Parson for the first half of the film, and we are unaware of her side of the story. Then, Samuel and Penelope share a few brief minutes of screen time before he meets his demise and Penelope takes over for the rest of the film.
I can’t remember the last time I watched a film that followed a structure like this. I’m so used to seeing the film’s protagonist all the way through that this baton-passing version of storytelling was fascinating for me.
As the story progresses, the title of the film seems to apply to different characters. At first, we believe Samuel is going to save the “damsel” Penelope from whatever ogre has captured her. Then we realize that she isn’t the damsel at all. As she takes up the role of the main protagonist, it appears that Parson is more of the one in need of saving.
I also think there’s a good case to be made that Butterscotch is the real damsel in this particular film — she has no defenses, no way to fight off predators, and has to be gingerly led around. She’s constantly at the mercy of whichever human looks upon her with compassion at any given time. Honestly, I kept waiting for something bad to happen to her and I’m really glad that Butterscotch made it through unscathed.
Penelope is the Complex Female Character I’ve Been Waiting For
Of course, there’s more than meets the eye with Penelope. She is not the damsel in distress we expect in a movie set in the Wild West. That moment when she expresses her grief for the loss of her husband by destroying and then blowing up her house is a work of genius. I appreciate a woman who has a whole bunch of dynamite available to be used however she sees fit.
At one point, when she, Parson, and Zachariah Running Bear are all eating dinner together, she begins talking about her personal boundary. This was an important moment for me as a viewer. It can be difficult to set and keep boundaries as a woman and I so appreciate that this character was willing to clearly state her boundaries to two men. Penelope wasn’t about to put up with any funny business from either of them — though both express interest.
There are a million movies about a woman changing her boundaries for a man. Damsel is one of the few examples of a woman’s boundaries being clearly set and respected.
In a beautiful moment of irony, at the end of the film, Parson proposes to Penelope. Never giving a thought to what this woman who just lost the man she loves might want, he states his desire to give and receive love. His entire passionate plea is based on what he wants and needs — doesn’t that sound familiar?
When Penelope dismounted from her horse, I wondered what she was going to do. Damsel had subverted conventional Hollywood and traditional Westerns for over 90 minutes and I sincerely hoped that it would continue on that trend. When she chucked that rock at him, I smiled from ear to ear — it was one of the most satisfying moments of cinema that I’ve seen in a while. It’s amazing how many times I’ve longed to see a woman respond to a ridiculous proposal in this way. Take notes, Hollywood!
Damsel is a witty and incredibly dark comedy that turns the Wild West narratives we’ve grown accustomed to on their heads. This film is quirky and unexpected in many ways. For decades, the women in Westerns have been one-dimensional, but in Damsel, the woman is the most competent and badass of all the characters. And having a mini horse along for the ride is a big plus.
This is the first movie I’ve seen by the Zellner brothers, and I’m really excited to see what they create next. I’m so glad we live in an age where these creative and off-beat films can get made and find an audience.