Written and Directed by David and Nathan Zellner (2018)
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska
Running time 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence, language, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity
by Sandy DeVito
Sort of spoiler disclaimer: since one of the “major” characters in this film dies about half an hour into it, it’s virtually impossible to write anything about the film without including that. I’m also writing this with a sinus infection. I also didn’t really enjoy watching this film. The basic gist of the plot is: Samuel (Robert Pattinson) tells a drunkard parson (David Zellner, who is one of the directors too) that his ardent love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) has been kidnapped and he needs to rescue her whereupon they will be married by the parson and live happily ever after. This is all taking place in the dirty, dry and desolate waste of the early American-occupied West.
I can’t really understand the point of the existence of a film executed like this one, to be perfectly frank. I think the Zellner brothers are trying to make some sort of commentary about the autonomy of human beings and the fact that white men always focus on themselves rather than bothering to consider the needs of the marginalized people who surround them, but the project itself kind of cancels these goals out, if that was indeed their objective (it’s the only noble one I can come up with), by giving only the white men a real POV and insisting on helming the project. Pattinson’s character is the one who dies early on; the marketing made it seem as though he’s one of the main characters, but his only real function is to bring the parson to Penelope and enact extreme trauma on her by killing the man she actually loves (none of it played with particular empathy, but rather extremely removed and impartial), and then the narrative sort of gravitates to Zellner’s character instead. I never felt as though we were perceiving the point of view of Penelope; partly because we are never given any backstory about her beyond the bare minimum (she hates Samuel and loves Anton, that’s pretty much it), and partly because we are constantly cut off from her point of view beyond her spoken dialogue with other characters. It turns out Samuel’s character is some kind of delusional sociopath who has convinced himself Penelope is his true love despite the fact that she’s with another man, and takes it upon himself to get that man killed so he can “marry” her when she neither loves him nor wants to marry him. As soon as the scene where Anton is murdered and Penelope sobs over his dead body happens, I began to hate this film. The tone is something that seems to be aiming for Coen brothers territory, without any of the writing, nuance, construction of scene or empathy their films encompass. This scene, where Penelope cries in anger and despair, angered and saddened me, because it’s glossed over almost immediately for the rest of the narrative. Not once are we allowed to sit with her in exposition in her grief, not once are we given a real grasp of the absolute heinousness of the violence men enact on women, directly and indirectly. The script is like the scrabbling of a teenage boy professing his intention to see the humanity in the women and POC who surround him while doing no real work to enact said understanding.
After Samuel kills himself in the outhouse (???) when Penelope says she doesn’t love him, she and the parson leave her homestead (but not before she blows it up with dynamite that she apparently just has lying around) and sort of meander around in the woods, running into Anton’s violent brother Rufus (Nathan Zellner, the other brother, who ostensibly threatens to rape and marry her against her will) and meeting an Indian named Zacharia (Joseph Billigiere) who makes them dinner (it seems, mostly, for Penelope’s benefit) and then leaves in the middle of the night. The fact that this film is 2 hours is strange to me because for the majority of the runtime nothing much happens. It feels like a muddled short film stretched like silly putty. In the end, the parson decides he’s going to propose to Penelope with the ring Samuel left behind when he committed suicide because he, quote, “is lonely and wants love”. She replies that he isn’t the only one who wants those things, and leaves him to his own devices. Said line is what led me to believe the Zellners’ goals were to shed light on the autonomy of those often confined to the outer lines of Western film narratives, but the film never really does so; it just sort of vaguely comments on those issues without giving its woman (Wasikowska) or its POC (Billingiere) much of anything to do. I will say I watched it to the end essentially out of curiosity, as it’s set up almost, it seems, as an antithesis to the average film, killing a “major” character almost immediately, leaving its other characters to meander aimlessly with a miniature pony, banjo strings being plucked randomly as background music. All I could think of for most of it, though, was how much I would hate a man who stalked me to the place I lived happily with my partner, caused the murder of the man I actually love, and then delusionally pretended he “saved” me, only to dramatically “martyr” himself in my outhouse when I rejected him. I’d find a way to bring him back from the dead so I could kill him again, with my bare hands. We can’t be giving film narratives that are trying to observe the ways men have marginalized women to men anymore. There are so many women who deserve to be telling these stories.