Perhaps it is a fluke, perhaps this was longer coming than we thought, but at this year’s Sundance Film Festival we are seeing a fun of films hyping themselves as feminist. It seems delightfully timely in a #MeToo era. One of these, Damsel, is the latest movie from the Zellner Brothers. The film hypes itself as a feminist western. How does the film hold up in a genre which tends to be largely male dominated. 

Damsel follows Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he recruits a local parson (David Zellner) in hopes of rescuing and marrying his kidnapped fiancée, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). The movie comes from writer/directors David and Nathan Zellner. 

Watching the comedic western, Robert Pattinson quickly (and firmly) establishes himself as the star of the movie. This film’s delivers what I never knew I needed in life, Robert Pattinson hanging around with an adorable miniature pony. Day made. Pattinson throws himself head first into the comedy, displaying an impressive sense of comedic timing. He’s an absolute blast to watch in this movie. This is a rarely seen side of the still young actor. Here’s hoping we get to see more of this in the future. 

However, performances can only do so much in the face of problematic construction. Damsel’s biggest trouble comes from its editing. From the first scene in the film, things feel stagnate and overall laggy. While action cutting with Jason Bourne-esque, rapid fire cuts can be annoying as well, the editing contributes to the film feeling a lot slower than it is. Editing is very much an under-appreciated art. It’s difficult to notice when it’s well-done; however, when it fails it can seriously hinder a film. 

Damsel struggles a bit with its comedy. While pleanty of laughs hit for the premiere audience, there are a number of moments where jokes struggle. The slow pacing of the film leads certain comedic moments to feel on-going, practically hitting audiences in the face with the joke. This could be an awkward silence which feels far to long, or watching the punch-line repeated multiple times before finally cutting away. Damsel is not unfunny, but with the chosen pace and tone, it faces an uphill battle. However, humor is such an subjective thing that this could change for each individual viewer. What doesn’t work well for some, might thrill others. 

Now, to address the elephant in the room. The film is billing itself as a feminist western. The intention is definitely there; however, it falls just a bit short of constructing anything truly meaningful in this sense. This has nothing to do with Wasikowska’s performance (she’s an absolute delight). Rather, the problems are with the script. The running joke is that Penelope doesn’t need saving (despite what the men around her seem to think). That is true. Penelope is strong, feisty and independent. However, we see little of her character below the surface. The script doesn’t take the time to develope her character beyond her relationships with the men around her. It is this fact which keeps her character from feeling like a fully fleshed out woman in this hardened environment. 

The work Damsel does with the male characters is interesting. (No spoilers). This character development goes as far as the film can in classifying the film as a feminist western. These men are a challenge. The likability is there, and the performances are all well given. The path the movie seems to be taking is in crafting these bafoon-ish male characters, Penelope stands out in her competency by comparison. Now, in examining the western as a highly male dominated genre, flipping these traditional archetypes on their head makes sense. However, I don’t believe the film goes as far as it needs to in order to be successful in this. 

As a film, Damsel is somewhat weighed down by what it could have been. While the film is tremendously helped by a host of stellar performances, what is there is hampered by script and editing problems. Fans of westerns, particularly of the slightly subversive variety should check this one out, as should fans of the Pattinson and Wasikowska. Both performers put in absolutely stellar performances, definitely carrying the material on their backs. 

Damsel is currently screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Check out the rest of our festival coverage, here. Check back as more information becomes available. 

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Kimberly Pierce

A film nerd from my earliest years watching Abbott and Costello, that eventually translated to a Master’s Degree in Film History. I spend my time working on my fiction projects in all their forms, as well as covering film and television.
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