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Westerns aren’t all that popular these days but they still have their place. Nowadays with the rise of science fiction, it seems that broader concepts and ideas tend to be explored in futuristic environments. While a Bravestarr remake would bring both these worlds together in a film starring Dwayne Johnson and Willem Dafoe as the Marshall and Tex Hex respectively, we’ve got to get used to the idea that the spaghetti western era may be a thing of the past. Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone are no more but perhaps there’s an opportunity for a neo-western era.
If Tom Hanks can finally star in a western, maybe this signals a change. The box office takings for these films have been traditionally quite low but streaming services are gaining more award recognition with each passing year and it seems that studios may be giving new life to these kinds of “indie” features. Damsel isn’t a complete overhaul of the genre – it actually uses many classic elements to set the scene. The difference is that it has a spoof comedy quality beneath the surface. The Coen brothers have been toying with westerns in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which are actually the subtext to many plots these days involving strangers from out of town who arrive to stir things up. Yet, their comic sensibility is more refined than the Zellner brothers, who write, direct and star in the rowdy Damsel.
Completely integrated into this film, the Zellners are everywhere… echoing Damsel‘s curious story devices as the lines between hero, villain and Damsel blur. It’s a journey movie as a man sets out on a quest to marry his fiancee. The plot sounds pretty straight forward but throw a Shetland pony named Butterscotch into the mix and you’ve got yourself full-fledged quirk. Don’t worry, Pattinson treats the miniature horse like a dog mule rather than his steed… this isn’t Monty Python & The Holy Grail absurd and they did have enough budget to bypass coconut husks.
David Zellner does a good job playing a reluctant parson as a continuity device, but the film’s biggest drawcards and six gun shooters are Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. Pattinson may have first gained prominence for his part in Twilight, but has demonstrated his brimming talent with a string of bold lead performances in Good Time, The Lighthouse and Tenet. Damsel is no different, allowing the actor to revel in the quirkiness of this offbeat Western with a Justin Timberlake to Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards spin on Captain Sparrow. Wasikowska is porcelain personified but brings moxie, picking up the reins and navigating some rough story terrain. Built on their hefty performances, Damsel‘s a strange balancing act as a small circus of outlandish characters parade their reckless behaviour in a bid to amuse.
“Well milady, now all we need’s a threshold.”
Damsel’s independent spirit and bizarre mix of comedy drama set it apart from other westerns. Spirited, unpredictable and at times moving as if by association, this nutty jaunt sadly loses its true North and slips out of its historical context from time to time. It’s ambitious in tone and storytelling, attempting to ramp some wide gorges and mostly succeeding. Losing something in an important handover along with its momentum, Damsel does struggle to regain the same creative and compelling confidence of its first act. Using modern language or phrasing, the thin veil does have its holes but the offbeat comedy smooths over a few of these kinks.
The characters are captivating even if not fully explored, creating a colourful tapestry and shapeshifting story that’s entertaining even if fleeting. Bowing to the production value and stern attitude of your typical western drama, Damsel’s lightened by Coen brothers charm and whimsy. Taking it a step further, the film’s playful energy leads it to cartoon violence with real-life consequences. Beautiful on-location photography frames the western as the journey takes them from the Monument Valley’s iconic backdrop through forests and valleys.
Giving traditional western elements a fresh spin, Damsel tends to rely on its wilderness, quirky tone and big gun actors. It’s not far from its original vision but Damsel has just as many hits as misses. There’s still enough thoughtful ideas, offbeat comedy moments, fun performances and entertainment value to muster a watch.
The bottom line: Amusing
Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling is 2Oceansvibe’s Resident Film Critic, a “thought leader” (AFDA) and “our generation’s Barry Ronge” (Brothers Streep), who continues to review, write, present, promote and adjudicate film for a host of websites, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, TV shows, festivals and events.
*Watch great cinema online with Labia Home Screen! The Labia Theatre is an iconic independent theatre at 68 Orange Street, Gardens, Cape Town. They recently celebrated their 70th year and have successfully transitioned to digital projectors. In addition to their 4 cinemas, they’ve now added a “5th” screen by launching their Home Screen pay-per-view video-on-demand streaming service.
Labia Home Screen enables viewers to watch the theatre’s carefully curated content from the comfort of their home from anywhere in South Africa. As they open their box office in what will be a new normal, this convenient streaming service is helping the much-loved cinema continue to provide high quality, award-winning films to their loyal patrons.
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