‘Damsel’ Movie Review: Feminist In Message, Not In Practice
Damsel, directed by Nathan and David Zellner, starts off like most indie-comedies do, following a quirky, skinny, socially awkward white guy who just wants to do what’s right. Robert Pattinson stars in this 1870s western as said quirky guy, Samuel Alabaster, who enlists the drunk, lovable, sad puppy-dog Parson Henry (co-writer/co-director David Zellner) in trying to find and save his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska,) who has been kidnapped. The first half hour or so of Damsel acts as a wonderful display of unconventional humor that inspires appreciative smiles instead of belly laughs. However, once Samuel and Parson Henry actually find Penelope and attempt to rescue her from her kidnapper’s cabin in the woods, the movie changes course and the message of the film starts to become apparent.
[Spoilers ahead, proceed with caution!]
They seemingly succeed in their mission by killing the kidnapper and finding Penelope, however, it’s quite obvious that something is wrong, as Penelope weeps over the corpse of her supposed “kidnapper.” Penelope unleashes a fiery rage on Samuel and through this heated exchange we discover that Samuel is not a quirky, socially awkward, nice guy, but in fact a delusional and entitled creep who is responsible for the death of Penelope’s husband and true love. Once she makes it clear to Samuel in the most brutal and blunt way imaginable that she never had feelings for him and never will, he ends his own life. While “protagonists” getting killed off in the first act isn’t new, it remains one of my favorite movie twists as it’s used sparingly, and I never see it coming. In this particular case, the twist isn’t just for shock value or the sake of a twist, it actually allows the film to evolve from a somewhat conventional comedy/western to a film with something to say, a film with “nice guys” to expose. The rest of the film follows Penelope, accompanied by the drunk Parson, as she is forced to sidestep and reject every man who lays eyes on her, including her brother-in-law Rufus (Nathan Zellner) and a Native American named Zacharia (Joseph Billingiere.)
When Penelope and Parson Henry then reach the end of their journey and are about to part ways, the Parson finally shows us that he is just like every other man we’ve encountered in the film thus far. As Penelope leaves, he calls after her and pathetically asks for her hand in marriage, essentially saying, “I am lonely and I am nice so you should marry me.” Watching my favorite character, a guy who I thought was different from the rest, a guy who I thought understood what Penelope was going through, reveal himself to be so inconsiderate and selfish was truly rough. The Parson had quite literally murdered the love of her life the day before and then watched as she, obviously uninterested in moving on yet, fought off multiple suitors, and then he actually decided that proposing to Penelope was a good idea. Penelope proceeded to hit the Parson in the face with a rock, which admittedly made me smile. This whole ending was so well done, as I’ve heard many stories of seemingly really close guy friends making creepy advances out of nowhere, betraying a trust between friends, which this scene encapsulates perfectly.
The film as a whole is anything but conventional. I often found myself wondering where the plot was heading since the pacing was pretty slow, so I wasn’t able to truly appreciate Damsel until the end, where I realized the whole film is just a setup to show you how so many men are, for lack of a better word, trash. The narrative we think we’re observing through the first act comes to a screeching halt once Samuel dies, and watching Penelope sidestep gross men is really all that comes afterwards.
Damsel shares numerous similarities to the film Kids, which was directed by Larry Clarke and written by a young Harmony Korine. In both films the women are constantly deflecting and rejecting men who think they’re attractive and want to engage with them, either sexually or romantically. These men don’t understand what “no” means, and especially in Damsel, don’t take rejection very well at all. The main difference between Kids and Damsel is that the latter is at least somewhat triumphant for the woman involved: she gets to hit a dude in the face with a rock and take his pony. In Kids, a depressingly realistic documentary style narrative film, there is no such triumph, only mutual destruction. While Kids remains one of the most polarizing films in existence, I personally believe it to be a fantastic and disturbing slice-of-life cautionary tale that will scare everyone who watches it into wearing a condom. However, in today’s day and age with the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, Damsel is fresh and necessary. Exposing real issues while also having Penelope triumph in the end was certainly the right call.
[End of Spoilers]
There is one aspect of Damsel that causes a bit of personal internal conflict, however, and that’s the lack of women involved in the making of the film. I would think that a film about a woman overcoming these sorts of situations would be best told by women, as they are the ones who actually experience it; however the Zellner brothers did a great job telling this story while also bringing attention to this issue, so I guess that’s a good thing, right? Men using their platform to spread positive messages? Maybe, but what really made me scratch my head was the male-heavy credits for the film, which includes entirely male producers as well as an entirely male camera and electric crew, with the only female-dominated section of the crew being the makeup department. Clearly David and Nathan Zellner have listened a great deal to women’s personal horror stories and masterfully translated them to the screen, but considering the fact that very few women were actually involved in creating this feminist film makes me feel kind of uncomfortable.
In short, I think Damsel is a fantastically done film with a wonderful message, but the lack of women involved in the filmmaking process is wildly un-feminist.