You don't see many farces these days. At least, as far as movies are concerned. On the world stage, you could argue that the farce is doing better than ever, but very few movies are made in this all-but-abandoned genre. The only current purveyors that come to mind are the Coen Brothers, and when they work in this mode, à la Burn After Reading, they tend to get their lowest levels of appreciation. (For the record, I love Burn After Reading -- as well as The Hudsucker Proxy, for that matter.) I believe it is this decline in familiarity that is behind the luke warm reception that has so far greeted the Zellner Brother's fine little movie, Damsel.
Current cinema favors realism. There are very few musicals or whimsical fantasies, and even the en vogue superhero movies tend to shoot for "gritty." It feels like the only way a movie can be deemed relevant is if it is also realistic, which greatly underestimates the capabilities of film and storytelling in general. Much of this goes back to the 60s and 70s, when the heightened styles and theatrics of previous generations were abandoned in favor of method acting and the devices of cinema vérité. Since then, there's only the odd movie like Hail, Caesar! or the hat tip in the second half of Mistress America that displeased a good deal of critics. The last zany farce to win the hearts and minds of both critics and audiences may have been Bogdanovich's 1972 classic, What's Up Doc? Since then it's been mostly cinema non grata.
The Zellner Brother's Damsel may have more than one preemptive strike against it by being a farcical western, thereby combining two classic genres that are currently out of favor. Or, perhaps just as troubling is the idea of putting comedy into a genre that's been more or less strictly serious business since Blazing Saddles (no, we don't count The Ridiculous 6). Nevertheless, this combination still works perfectly well, especially as the means to tell a twisted tale of unrequited love and longing to be part of something unattainable.
Damsel starts off with a fantastic preamble between co-director/co-writer/co-star, David Zellner, and an old priest, played by an especially grizzled Robert Forster. While the two wait for a carriage that may or may never come, Forster provides something of a monologue about his experiences as a priest, and by the end he's suggested that the pages of the Good Book are more useful as toilet paper, stripped down to his long johns and headed off into the desert. The scene sets the mood rather well for the off-beat nature of what unfolds, which might be best described as a goofy brand of gallows humor. What's also immediately apparent is that it's all going to look superb since Adam Stone in on hand -- perhaps better known as the cinematographer behind every Jeff Nichols movie.
After Forster's self-defrocked priest moseys off into the great beyond (sadly never to be seen from again) we hop ahead in time, where Zellner has taken up Forster's outfit and is now known as Parson Henry, for a lowly congregation of miscreants and drunkards. Henry himself has fallen to drink, and is discovered by the newly arrived Samuel (admirably played by Robert Pattinson) passed out on the beach, covered in crabs. Samuel wants Henry to accompany him on a short journey to where his would-be-fiancée, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), is staying. Or, as Samuel soon elaborates, the journey is taking them to where Penelope is being held against her will, and Samuel plans to heroically free her and then cap things off by bending-the-knee and proposing. As he explains it, she'll be over the moon. After all, Samuel has written a (hilariously bad) tune on the guitar he's carrying with him. And, if that weren't enough, he's also towing along a miniature horse named Butterscotch, which is supposedly Penelope's favorite animal.
All of this is naturally a bit much for Parson Henry, who hardly qualifies as a legitimate justice of the peace for his tiny town of misfits, never mind a vigilante or man of action. And if you don't want the movie's twists and turns ruined, you may want to stop here. But a seasoned viewer will quickly start to sense that Samuel isn't exactly being honest with Henry. For starters, why would he choose this parson, from such a backwater hellhole, for this particular task?
The title of the movie is, of course, a reference to the standard western trope of the "damsel in distress," and the movie is getting some publicity as being a feminist twist on this archetype. So, there's a good amount of unease in knowing that Penelope is very likely distress-free. Or, that our glad-handing dandy, Samuel, might be the real agent of distress.
Indeed, when we finally reach Penelope, the movie takes quite a gruesome turn. The movie then becomes about Penelope, who we come to find is handy with dynamite, and Henry -- one upset about having her place in the world taken away, and one desperate to find a new place. In an effective bit of comedy, Henry is obsessed with Indians, but in a very different way than most Wild West preachers: he wants to be one. Taken by the concept of the noble savage, Henry would love nothing more than to live in a teepee, hunt buffalo and take part in powwows. The last thing he wants to do is return to a life in that horror show of a town Samuel dragged him out of.
In a scene both touching and absurd, Henry find himself at a makeshift campsite, lying next to a Native American man, and can't help himself. He starts prodding him with questions about the possibility of becoming an Indian, eliciting a furrowed brow and some exasperated eye rolls. Stupid white man, indeed.
As usual, Mia Wasikowska does a fine job in capturing an furious heartbreak at the varying levels of invasiveness and stupidity of the men around her. Even though she may be somewhat too fond of dynamite, she is truly the most stable and rational person in the movie. She has no use for Henry or any of the other guy who might insist that she need a man to get along. As improbable as some of the movie's events are, her character rings strong and true.
When critics and audiences dismiss a farce, the standard line is that there was problems with the tone -- that the movie will bounce around too much, veer wildly from one scene to the next, that it's too broad or improbable. All of these things are applicable to Damsel, but these elements are all hallmarks of the genre. Robert Pattinson has supposedly called the movie a "slapstick western," but I have a hunch he may have intended something closer to a "western farce." These terms tend to get mixed up because they often coexist. It's common for a farce to contain some slapstick elements as a way of reinforcing the chaotic and unpredictable nature of the genre (or the spirit of the story being told), but Damsel isn't much of a slapstick anything. It's not a Three Stooges western. It is quite silly, clever and violent at times, but at its heart it is a tragedy -- one that is both funny and sad, sometimes within the same scene. And I think that's a big reason why it makes for a very successful farce.