Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Gabe Casdorph, Joseph Billingiere, Robert Forster
Director: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner
Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
David and Nathan Zellner have long been tweaking expectations; from the darkly comedic riff on childhood mental illness that was Kid Thing to the obsessive fairy tale of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Often compared to the Coen Brothers (not just in terms of the familial pairing), the Zellners have quietly built a name for themselves on the indie circuit by couching melancholy behind deadpan quirk. Their latest film, Damsel, also arrives with a meta take on a specific genre; in this case, an attempt at deconstructing the Western by showing the foolishness of the male ego by switching up narrative mechanisms at the half-way point. The results are admirable, if contrived; playing like a protracted sketch in which the Zellners have nowhere particularly compelling to take their atypical premise.
Robert Pattinson stars as Samuel Alabaster, a dim-witted wanderer who strides into a small town with a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow. He’s looking for a man of the cloth to officiate his wedding to his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom we glimpse only briefly in flashback during a rather spirited dance sequence. The pastor in question, a vagrant named Henry (David Zellner) is a drunken mess, lying prostrate near the ocean when Samuel approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse. Thus, the two men set off on a journey through the wilderness to find Penelope, whom we later discover has been taken captive by brothers Anton (Gabe Casdorph) and Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner), or so Samuel claims. As played by Pattinson with a deluded kind of earnestness, Samuel is the type of dandy who makes big romantic proclamations, but whose grip on reality emerges as teetering on the edge of mania. In this way, the Zellners cleverly unmask the inanity of male pride and the Western’s themes of honor and dignity.
Damsel makes an abrupt tonal shift around the half-way mark once Wasikowska’s fiercely independent fiancé gets involved, leading to a sequence of tragicomic violence which moves the film into more uncertain territory. However, for all of Penelope’s reserve and quasi-feminist speeches, her character is ultimately a hollow cipher on hand to represent an ideology. Though there’s a welcome revisionist streak as the film shifts to the female perspective, the Zellners don’t know what to do narratively since they haven’t fleshed out the character of Penelope beyond broad brush strokes.
Despite gorgeous widescreen cinematography, an evocative score, and game performances, Damsel feels underdeveloped to the point of superfluousness. The film points out the inherent sexism and racism of the old West (and many classic Western films, generally), but then botches the second half twist by not fully investing in the interior life of Wasikowska’s one-note crusading heroine. Sure, she’s a “damsel” who doesn’t need saving, but does she want, and more importantly, who is she? The film, much like real life, doesn’t seem to care.