If you’ve seen a hundred westerns, then you’ve seen it a hundred times: a mysterious figure rides into town looking for someone. With guns drawn, frontier justice is enforced, the two characters’ shared backstory bubbles up to the surface, and, if our mysterious figure is a hero, he’ll get the girl and ride off into the sunset; simple, efficient, and ripe for subversion.
“We’re using the tropes familiar with the western genre, using that as a foundation—a kind of entry point—and then subverting it from there,” Nathan Zellner says about Damsel, the most recent feature-length made with brother David.
Set in the Wild West of 1870—a place where a man can enjoy a fresh start, maybe—Damsel kicks off with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a Pilsner-drinking dandy with a goofy gold tooth, a guitar slung over his rifle and a miniature horse named Butterscotch, riding into town looking for Parson Henry (David Zellner). The Parson has agreed to accompany Samuel on his trek across the frontier in search of his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) and rescue her from a band of misfit suitors. But as we learn soon enough, the Parson isn’t exactly who he says he is (though his heart’s in the right place), Penelope might not need rescuing, and Samuel’s affections might be severely misplaced.
“The madness in the middle of the film was the impetus for this story,” Nathan says. “We liked the idea of having it in the western setting, where you have this sense of lawlessness…You have a nice playground to ratchet things up from what was otherwise a normal messed-up relationship.”
David chimes in, pointing out that the contrast between the western setting and Samuel and Penelope’s relationship holds Damsel back from any idealized romanticism.
“You idealize things from the past for being simplified,” David explains. “Especially in terms of relationships. You always think about break-ups and complicated relationships as contemporary…We like taking something that feels contemporarily relatable on that level and then putting it in this backdrop from another time.”
And Damsel will feel relatable, frustratingly so, while managing to remain humorous. That humor—a touch gallows with a healthy dose of observation and absurdism—is by far the Zellners’ greatest asset, one they’ve cultivated since they first grabbed a camera.
“We’ve been making films since we were little,” Nathan says. “And that started off with us wearing multiple hats, not knowing what the difference between an actor or a director or a producer or any of the crew things was.”
Though Damsel sports a larger budget and bigger stars than their previous projects, the Zellners retain their signature touch while incorporating western hallmarks. From the opening image of a weathered and craggy face who’s seen it all (a delightful Robert Forster) to Nathan’s role as an opportunistic trapper with an unrequited attraction to a woman rowing her way off into the great unknown, Damsel teems with humor and commentary.
The above interview first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 47, “‘Madness in the middle.’“
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