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Review of Damsel (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

It is quite fascinating to watch the trajectory of the Zellner Brothers, David and Nathan, as they have continued to fine-tune their unique style in filmmaking. One may wonder if they got into directing and producing because they wanted to act, or they act because it makes producing and directing that much more efficient. Like the Coen brothers, it is unclear whose creativity is the driving force or if they share all the creative decisions that go into a film. In any case, the sibling team has risen to be among the kings of independent cinema, and it is appropriate to mention them in the same breath as the Duplass brothers (in my eyes, a huge compliment).

While I am impressed with their craft and their success, I also note that the content of their films can be quite challenging on multiple levels. On a conventional level, it is fun to enjoy the strange juxtaposition of opposites and the snarky humor that is finely crafted into their dialog—at times, quite eloquent. As their success has grown, their films progressively seem less like low-budget home-movies and more like refined studio productions. What has not changed is the complexity of the heroes, if there are any, and the vague resolve of a film’s one big question, if stated at all. This evolution is not necessarily a fault in the filmmakers, but certainly, such style can be risky in an attempt to reach a more traditional audience. A Brechtian style might prove to be a limiting barrier as their films start finding their way onto streaming sites. The average Netflix viewers are certainly quite different from the more open-minded festival audiences. Festival fans expect to be stretched; they are more willing to take a risk in identifying with these Zellner characters. Time will tell if their unique style will attract a more diverse set of fans.

In Damsel, the brothers try their hand at directing a Western. At times, the dialog in this film takes on an old-time cadence and phrasing reminiscent of O Brother Where Art Thou. The opening scene (at a square dance) was masterfully performed and directed. Yet after it shows promise as a traditional western, the plot twists divert it to become more of an Unforgiven sort of tragedy. Typical of the other Zellner brother films I have seen, the action need not make sense (not even historically or geographically); the story must only be plausible for it to work. The brothers are good at depicting a realistic corrupt or tragic human condition in need of redemption.

However, where might that redemption come from? On a less conventional level, the film makes a sharp statement about religion. In a Coen-like realization similarly expressed by the lawman in No Country for Old Men, this film is bookended by two parsons who each come to the same realization that they cannot make a difference among the “savages.” Note that the term as used here does not mean the native Americans. As a matter of fact, the only native American is more erudite than any other character in the film. The savages are those who are immune to the Gospel—or too far gone for it to have any effect; the preachers cannot help them. As the film opens at a stage stop, the old parson (Rober Forster) passes on the mantle of his pastorate to the reluctant newbie (David Zellner). Apparently, Parson Henry as he is now known has little experience or aptitude for the job but accepts the role anyway.

Significant is the worn Bible the old parson hands to Henry. Many of the pages are missing—used for kindling and personal hygiene. Later, Parson Henry also uses a page or two to blow his nose. In the world of Damsel, the Word is reduced to a toiletry, completely without spiritual power and useful in the only the most humble of ways. While potentially offensive on one level, the disrespect is no more than Christ himself experienced while on earth. While I see no reason to believe the Zellners had that particular metaphor in mind, the actions provide a moment of pause for any Christian as the crucifixion is replayed symbolically in those ignoble references. (Perhaps the pause is for more than a moment.)

Finally, the parson himself, not fully committed to the ways of the cloth, begs the Indian (uncredited, apparently) to allow him to join the tribe—to fold his identity into the nobler savage way of life—he is refused. Later, he offers himself as a faithful companion in honorable marriage to the widowed Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), but she too scoffs at him. Old Time Religion seems to have no companion in this Zellner film, but as one observes the drift away from Christianity in postmodern times, perhaps these brothers are only the messengers.

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