Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska star in 'Damsel,' a black comedy masquerading as a Western.
July 12, 2018

Finally, a Western for the #MeToo era


According to Hollywood Westerns, women find salvation in the arms of the men who rescue them. Wearing heavy wool prairie skirts and floral print blouses, they stand helpless before Indians, snakes and black-hatted ne'er-do-wells. The classic example features John Wayne retrieving Natalie Wood from the Comanches in The Searchers (1956). But the trope persists even in a beautifully crafted movie like Hostiles, released earlier this year, in which Christian Bale escorts the towering screen goddess Rosamund Pike out of Comanche territory (Those Comanches again! You'd think that white folks would have figured out by now why they're trying to protect their own land).

But in the Zellner brothers' hybrid film Damsel—a black comedy clothed in Western garb—Mia Wasikowska, as Penelope, destroys that dusty old notion. To signal that she's going to be a different kind of movie heroine, the costume designer cinches her midriff in a subtle tunic when she first appears on screen. It's like a less flamboyant version of Wonder Woman's, but with Penelope's arms and legs also covered. Her outfit indicates that she's in battle armor and prepared to fight off any passing intruder.

Wasikowska's steely-eyed performance isn't entirely without precedent. In Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge chew the male actors up and then spit them off screen like lumps of flavorless tobacco. And Hailee Steinfeld  brings the right amount of gumption to her vengeful character in the Coen brothers' remake of True Grit (2010). But Wasikowska's Penelope is a determined leap forward. She skillfully defends herself from the men who pursue her with an inner strength that stems from her willpower and intellect as much as from her facility with firearms. The men who knock on her door believe, incorrectly, that not only does Penelope need rescuing but that each one of them in turn is the man for the job.

With Wasikowska behind the trigger, Damsel points a rifle directly at male vanity and shoots a hole right through the target's heart. That Robert Pattinson, of Twilight movie fame, should embody that quality as her main suitor Samuel feels exactly right. He may be sporting a silver-capped canine tooth but he still looks fine in 19th century pants. It's an added bonus that the American accent he's invented never once strays from the foolish tenor of a country bumpkin. Pattinson, like his co-star, is choosing to work with great directors on smaller films like this one. And they're both enjoying the characters the Zellners have written for them. When Samuel and Penelope dance together in the opening scene, they convey something that's rarely captured on screen—unadulterated joy.

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