Beneath the surface of the quirky, surreal sight gags of Damsel, like Robert Pattinson dressed in dandyish cowboy wear leading a miniature horse by a leash with a bird cage holding a chicken on its back, is a strained effort to reinvent the notion of the damsel in distress in westerns. A tolerance for such humor, which remains consistent throughout, will determine how much pleasure you get out of this weird western. But further debilitating the film is a meandering story that hardly moves beyond this initial concern, despite some strong performances by the actors, including the film’s co-directors.
Pattinson, an actor of fine subtle range, does his best as Samuel Alabaster in this self-aware kooky story. Samuel hires who he thinks is a preacher, Parson Henry (co-director/co-writer David Zellner), to marry him and his love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). The problem, he later reveals to Henry, is that Penelope has been kidnapped, and they must pool their resources to rescue her. Henry, who is actually a drunk, disillusioned adventurer who inherited the garb from a deeper disillusioned preacher (Robert Forster) at the start of the film, expresses his resistance throughout. There’s a twist in the middle of the film that actually makes you wonder where else the film has to go, even as it seems to empower Penelope as no damsel in distress.
Zellner and his co-director/co-writer brother Nathan Zellner, who also has a role in the film as the dim-witted brother of accused kidnapper Anton (Gabe Casdorph), certainly know how to amp up the humor. They play with western movie tropes like spittoons, whiskey shots in dusty bars and even a barrel suit viewers will be more familiar having seen in cartoons than in live action movies. While the Zellners flex their ability to stretch irony and dichotomy throughout the film, it often feels at the expense of allowing for any resonant acting and a plot that never seems to illicit true sympathy for the characters. Despite a well designed setting with a surreal edge and a solid score by Austin indie band The Octopus Project, the film never feels as engaging as it should be.
Damsel is a dark western/comedy that lampoons amorous relationships in a wild land that could use some love. It’s a mockery and grim as hell. It’s a film where mentions of love and devotion end with laughs, as its own sense of sincerity reeks of creepiness. Damsel is a mean little movie that drags a bit too long even as it captures the anarchic sense of the west. However, to diminish relationships to a punchline subverts the filmmakers’ own intentions to elevate a strong representation of women.
Damsel runs 113 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area exclusively at the Regal South Beach Stadium 18. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., follow this link. Magnolia Pictures sent us an online screener link for the purpose of this review.