Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
David and Nathan Zellner manage to upend most of the conventions of the Western genre in this adventurous comedy in the guise of a search and rescue tale. We do not meet up with the damsel of the title until a third of the film has unfolded, during which we learn of the dubious way in which Parson Henry (David Zellner) was “ordained,” and the background of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who has hired the bogus minister to marry Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).
Only after the two have set out from the poor excuse of a town does Samuel reveal that his damsel has been kidnapped by two brothers, so theirs is a rescue mission as well as a matrimonial one. The jelly-spined Henry objects, but Samuel forces him to continue, promising to increase his fee. He has brought with him his guitar, an expensive ring, and a miniature horse named Butterscotch, the latter because his love had once mentioned that she loved the little animals.
What a surprise when the rescue is pulled off by killing one of the brothers and the damsel reveals that only now is she in distress. She had never intended to marry Samuel, preferring to live in isolation with her now dead lover. This rejection triggers a very unexpected reaction, with subsequent events also often surprising us by their unexpectedness and ridiculousness.
There are touches of John Ford and Federico Fellini throughout the film, In regard to the latter, the search, Monument Valley and other vistas, the saloon, and a sudden Indian arrow striking the back of a bad guy. The influence of the latter is seen in the bleak town where a man clad in a barrel laughs outside the saloon, and inside men with grotesque faces leer as they drink and stare at the stranger who walks in. A dwarf sits playing the piano despite his half-length arms.
In the saloon Samuel at first seems like one of those Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper soft-spoken heroes when an ill-tempered bar patron insults him in an obvious attempt to provoke a fight, but this never happens. His rendition of the song he has written for his beloved, “Honeybun,” is so awful that he proves he is no Gene Autry also.
Parson Henry lacks both faith and courage, constantly complaining and striving to escape his circumstances. He describes himself to Native American Zachariah Running Bear (Joseph Billingiere), as a “soulless neophyte of paleface proportions.” Indeed, he is.
Only Penelope evinces any strength, despising her rescuers as weak-willed fools lacking anything worthy of admiration. She is determined to cherish and hang onto her freedom. She is a spiritual descendent of the Mary, whom Jesus said chose “the better part,” the male role of student rather than being relegated always to kitchen duty. In a funny, roundabout way the Zellner brothers demonstrate that strength of character, even in the 1870s Old West, is not a matter of sex, thus making this a rollicking feminist tract.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.