Double Take: 'Damsel' and 'The Great Silence'

Saturday, July 7, 2018
A still from 'Damsel'.

Two Woke Westerns

by:
Joshua Ray

It’s common for film writers to note that the Western has waxed and waned in popularity over the course of cinema’s history. While that may be true, the genre contains such a breadth of ideas and archetypes that its malleability allows for it to be remixed and reimagined countless times. Between the premiere of supreme master John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962 and the Italian debut of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars in 1964, modernity had shifted into the post-modern, and the Western moved from the one truly American genre to an international affair about American myth-making. 

Leone’s dazzling condemnation of American capitalism and violence, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), would be the next evolution, and only a year later audiences would experience the visceral and gory explosion of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. The ultimate revisionist, Robert Altman, would completely dismantle the genre in 1971 with his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a funny and elegiac masterpiece about the inextricable link between corporatization and dehumanization. It’s hard to pinpoint a great Western since these films that isn’t engaged in genre deconstruction: Clint Eastwood’s more traditional-feeling Unforgiven (1992) explored the trauma of violence, and the contemporary-set No Country for Old Men (2007) and Hell or High Water (2016) used the aspects of the genre to reflect morality in a modern world.

The Zellner Brothers’ new feature Damsel and Spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 film The Great Silence — which was recently restored and theatrically re-released — make for interesting markers in the development of the genre. They’re also two films with remarkably strong thematic resonance, subverting audience expectations to reveal the hypocrisies sewn deeply into the fabric of the Western. 

Damsel

2018 / United States / 113 min. / Dir. by David and Nathan Zellner / Opened in select cities June 22 2018; locally on July 6, 2018

Damsel’s opening moments prepare the viewer for the film's bifurcated and deceptive structure. A preacher (underrated national treasure Robert Forster) waits for a stagecoach, waxing poetic to a man about the impossibility of self-actualization, before he strips himself of his religious garb and heads into the barren desert, asking God to take him away. His destitute final parishioner, a newly sober man who wants to go West to “start fresh,” dons the preacher’s clothing and carries his ragged Bible — half of the pages have been used for rolling papers — and becomes Parson Henry (David Zellner, who co-wrote and directed the film with his brother, Nathan). 

Characters in Damsel are constantly assuming roles dictated by American traditions of exceptionalism and masculinity, while also dangerously projecting those ideals onto others. The male protagonist of the film, Sam (Robert Pattinson), finds Henry back off the wagon, passed out after a bender. Sam hires him, ostensibly to perform the nuptials for him and his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Eventually, however, he manipulates Henry into the scheme he’s had all along: rescuing Penelope from a kidnapping. By the time that plan comes to fruition, the film violently shifts its focus to the survival of Penelope and Henry, revealing that its first half was built on a scaffolding of tropes and trickery. 

It’s a risky gambit that Damsel mostly pulls off. Pattinson’s bumbling, one-sighted charm becomes murderous delusion in the pivot scene, shifting the viewer's sympathy from him to Wasikowska’s character. The actress is one of the few performers working today who is capable of moving through hysterical grief, righteous anger, and even-keeled badass within moments. The whiplash that Penelope is subjected to is also inflicted on the audience, in that Damsel plays its oft-hilarious deadpan comedy while maintaining its existential threads. (The film’s mascot is an ownerless Shetland pony that the characters awkwardly string along through their travels). 

Some scenes, like the one in which Henry sits in awe of a Native American who dispels the white man’s racist and foolish stereotypes, belabor the film’s ideas beyond the breaking point. However, the accumulation of the men who attempt to white-knight Penelope to freedom begins to feel like a comic nightmare straight out of a Buñuel film by the film’s end. Damsel retains both the off-kilter tone and visual wit of the Zellner Brothers’ previous feature Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014), often resembling a Coen Brothers film as directed by Wes Anderson. For some, it will be a frustrating journey. For more adventurous viewers, it will be a pilgrimage worth making.

Rating: B-

The Great Silence

1968 / Italy, France / 105 min. / Dir. by Sergio Corbucci / Opened in Italy on Dec. 7, 1968

Before Quentin Tarantino borrowed the eponymous character’s name from Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) for his Antebellum Western Django Unchained (2013), the Italian director’s work was largely unseen stateside, only celebrated by those with B-movie predilections. He’s been overshadowed by Sergio Leone, the man who made Clint Eastwood a movie star and has become a prominent figure of study in and outside of the Spaghetti Western genre he helped popularize. The Great Silence has been touring the States in a new 4K restoration, inviting critics and general audiences alike to reassess Corbucci as more than a Leone cohort.

The film’s striking visuals are nestled somewhere between the Cinemascope grandeur of Leone and the shaggy, blown-out beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The Great Silence also anticipates the latter film’s final wintry moments, taking place in a snowy Utah landscape. The whiteout conditions allow for the human drama of the film to be focused in the foreground as it deals out Western tropes: the moral, solitary “fastest gun in the West” and the immoral bounty hunters who oppose him. The use of a telephoto lens also permit the film to dig deeper into its complicated layers, as in a shot that begins on a closeup of a man and his lover hiding in a barn and slowly pulls back to reveal the forces that are searching for them. 

Graceful camera dollies also highlight emotional and power shifts between the characters, as in the showdown featuring the film’s two leads. Verbose and diabolical bounty hunter Tigrero (German New Wave star Klaus Kinski) develops a desire to play cat-and-mouse with Silence (French New Wave star Jean-Louis Trintignant), a figure who resembles the stoic Man with No Name of Leone’s Dollars trilogy. However, Silence’s past, like everything in The Great Silence, is shaded with greater consequence than it initially appears to be — as when, in flashback, the traumatic slaughter of his family is completed with Silence’s own throat being cut, muting him for life. 

By the film’s end, it’s revealed that the title could refer to both its protagonist and the conflation of America’s capitalistic economic structure with its violent, genocidal history. The feature takes great strides to upend the traditional Western plot to reveal a cynical core condemning the myth-making of the genre as a kind of historical erasure. The Great Silence is as much a reflection of the United States’ original sins as it is a product of its original 1968 release date. Fifty years later, it remains a poignant and pertinent exposé of American values. 

Rating: B+ (Now available to rent or purchase digitally via Amazon, and to own on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Movement Classics.)