It’s nearly impossible to hear the term “damsel’ without thinking of the phrase “damsel in distress,” as in a helpless, fairy tale princess who needs to be rescued by a MAN.
In the wonderfully offbeat, endearingly askew, consistently funny feminist Western “Damsel,” a number of men make the mistake of believing Mia Wasikowska’s Penelope is a delicate, vulnerable flower who must be saved — after which she will be eternally grateful and all too happy to settle in for a lifetime of taking care of her man and providing him with all the children he desires.
Wrongo, boys. This particular damsel is smarter and more resourceful than you can possibly fathom. You haven’t just met your match; you’re hopelessly overmatched.
“Damsel” has the sepia-toned look of an old-fashioned Western, and the characters look and talk like the characters in countless old movies they used to show on late-night TV when there was a genre known as late-night TV.
But nearly every scene takes a sideways turn, and nearly every expectation we have doesn’t work out the way we anticipate it working out, and that’s what makes the journey so much fun.
There’s no doubting the influence the Coen brothers have on the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, who co-wrote and co-directed “Damsel.” (Both Zellners also act in the film.)
In the Zellner’s 2015 film “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” Rinko Kikuchi unearths an old VHS tape and believes it’s a documentary showing a man burying a case filled with cash — so she heads to the States to find the treasure.
The VHS tape is actually a copy of “Fargo.”
With “Damsel,” the Zellners have created their own fractured fairy tale, but from the deliberate pacing to the deadpan performances to the desert-dry satire to the period-perfect music, there’s something quite Coen-esque about the entire affair — and how can that not be a good thing?
Robert Pattinson does fine character work as Samuel, a young man of noble intentions and considerable means who has set out on a journey to rescue his beloved Penelope (Wasikowska), who has been kidnapped by a romantic rival named Anton (Gabe Casdorph).
With a rifle AND a guitar on his back, AND a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow (Penelope once told him she loved miniature ponies), Samuel would seem to be the most romantic of leading men. All he wants to do is find his beloved Penelope and marry her! What a guy.
Ah, but let’s just say it’s more complicated than that.
David Zellner is a hoot and a holler as Parson Henry, an alcoholic man of questionable character who may or may not be an actual man of the cloth. Samuel stuffs Parson Henry’s pockets with cash and persuades him to come along on the mission to rescue Penelope. Once Samuel frees Penelope from the evil clutches of Anton, how convenient will it be to have a preacher on standby to perform the nuptials, right? It’s as if Samuel can do no wrong.
From the moment Wasikowska’s Penelope enters the picture, she owns the story — and she turns the conventional Western clichés upside down. Depending on the situation, Penelope is either horrified or exasperated or frustrated or disgusted by the men who project their romantic fantasies on her or try to impose their will on her. She sets them straight with harsh doses of reality, she shoots them down with her razor-sharp comments — and if that doesn’t get the message across, well, you might just get hit in the face with a well-aimed rock.
This might be the first Western ever with a scene in which a Native American warrior sits around the campfire with a white man — and asks what the situation is with Penelope. Is she seeing anyone?
“Damsel” is set some 150 years ago, but it’s a timely social commentary about certain gender-based stereotypes that still exist in the movies. Mia Wasikowska kills it as Penelope, a true pioneer in many senses of the word.
Even Butterscotch the miniature pony realizes he’s lucky to be in her company.
Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner. Rated R (for some violence, language, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.