Damsel, which has largely gained favorable reviews as an unpredictable and semi-comedic Western spoof, embodies postmodern absurdity and nihilism. It’s one of the most appalling films I’ve ever seen.
At the start, a deranged preacher at a stagecoach stop in the desert during the 1870s hands his clerical clothing to a stranger before striding into the wasteland in his underwear to meet his Maker. The stranger becomes the new professed preacher, though he’s a drunken ditz, in a debauched Oregon village, which hosts gang bang parties. His inherited Bible lost most of its pages to the previous owner, who used them for hygiene and cigarettes.
A seemingly earnest young man from the east hires this inebriated pretend preacher to help him find and wed his lost love, the damsel, who’s ostensibly kidnapped in the Oregon wilderness. First the young man finds and kills the supposed kidnapper’s brother. Upon arrival at the kidnapper’s cabin, the pseudo-preacher, as instructed, blows away the head of the owner while he urinates outside. Urine continues to flow amply from the exposed phallus of the prostrate corpse.
Meanwhile the young man “rescues” the damsel inside, who’s been trying to shoot him and the preacher. She’s just witnessed the murder not of her kidnapper but her beloved husband. And she berates the young man for having obsessively and calamitously pursued her. He pleads for her hand in marriage as they stand over her husband’s cadaver. When rebuffed, he retreats into the outhouse and shoots himself.
At the woman’s insistence, the preacher buries her husband and performs a feckless parody of a funeral. The rejected young man’s body is left in the outhouse for animals to consume, but the preacher first snatches his cash and engagement ring. The woman, conveniently armed with dynamite and a plunger, blows up her own cabin before moving on, as the preacher takes cover.
Hilarious, right? I was tempted to leave the theater during the opening scene as the darkness of the story was obvious. But I waited at least 70 minutes for some redemptive moment. It never came, so I walked out. Apparently the story continues as the widow and the drunken false parson who killed her husband together experience new adventures on the road. One of their encounters is with a sardonic Indian who likes the “f” word. As a frontier woman she likes it too. The film’s dialogue is decidedly contemporary, which is supposed to be ironic.
Some reviewers have hailed Damsel for its madcap creativity and as a feminist empowerment story, even a #metoo moment, in which gender expectations are defied, the damsel in distress needs no rescuing, and all men are disgusting or pathetic. The classic Western narrative, with its patriarchal and imperialist presumption, is mocked and overthrown.
But entertainment, inspiration and comedy are hard to discern when everyone is despicable, as in so many cable miniseries. Ostensibly the woman is heroic, but she doesn’t mourn her murdered husband so much as rage against her stolen happiness. She has rights, after all.
The classic Western has universal appeal because of its premodern investment in grandeur, heroism and sacrifice, in which evils are endured, confronted and defeated. There’s nothing beautiful, inspirational or funny about Damsel, which is unashamedly postmodern and discordant. Even the otherwise gorgeous scenery seems dirtied by the events and scalawags who trespass it.
Reviewers who praise Damsel won’t share the above details lest they be spoilers. But the film itself is spoiled. And potential viewers merit warning, unless they seek a window into spiritual and aesthetic nothingness, where God is absent.