Ever since John Ford’s genre-defining The Searchers was released, nearly every subsequent western has had to deal with its legacy. That is even true of spoofs like this one. In the case of this goofball oater, the only Native character is just as big of an idiot as the pasty white characters. Nevertheless, echoes of The Searchers can be heard and seen throughout the Zellner Brothers’ Damsel, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Samuel Alabaster is a bit squirrely, but he seems like an earnest young chap, so sad sack Parson Henry agrees to make the trek to marry him and his beloved Penelope. However, while en route, Alabaster (he’s a white guy, in case you were unsure) informs the nebbish man of the cloth, he has actually joined a rescue mission. Dear Penelope has been kidnapped by the dastardly Anton. Yet, poor Henry agrees to soldier on, because he is moved by Alabaster’s ardor. However, things really get complicated when they arrive at the cabin.
Basically, the Zellners give an ironic O. Henry twist to the Old West premise and then devise ways to repeat the gag, over and over. Mia Wasikowska (well-represented at Sundance) is a formidable western heroine, but to get into specifics would be spoilery. Robert Pattinson is so unselfconsciously loopy as Alabaster, you have to give him credit for taking chances with his image. However, the Zellners’ MVP might just be Brother David, who is surprisingly humane and even rather affecting as Parson Henry.
As movie mash-ups go, Damsel is unusually moody. In fact, it rather dilly-dallies through the first act. Yet, that means the poignant pay-off does not so radically clash with the rest of the film. In many ways, we can see a kinship with the Zellners’ masterful Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (which also features a terrific supporting turn from David Zellner). It also directly addresses loneliness and the need for connection, but the outrageous gags give Damsel a partially split personality.
The Zellners clearly use the film’s Utah locations to evoke memories of The Searchers and other Ford westerns. They crank up the Utahness further by featuring Landon Weeks, a quite remarkable pianist from Ogden, as a saloon piano player, which is cool. It is an inconsistent film, but it proves movie spoofs need not be a brainless and soulless stretch of gags. Frankly, Kumiko was so great, it was wise of them to follow-up with something completely different. Recommended for viewers in the mood for some idiosyncratic humor that takes a few risks, Damsel is sure to get picked up by someone after it screened at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.