Damsel begins with a view of a gorgeous, windswept desert somewhere in the American West, an alternately alluring and frightening arena where many an old-fashioned heroic narrative has been forged. A wizened priest (Robert Forster) talks to a young parson, Henry (David Zellner), telling him the only thing awaiting him on the frontier is violence and savagery. Not from Native Americans (“Some are lousy, some not, just like everyone else, I reckon,” he says), but from Henry’s fellow travelers, and from the very land they’re foolishly trying to conquer.
The film cuts right from that pessimistic vision to a perfectly idealized one—two handsome lovers, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), dance together in a barn as the crowd around them claps and cheers. But, as the priest warned, life out West isn’t as sweet and simple as it might seem. Damsel, written and directed by the Zellner Brothers (Nathan and the aforementioned David), is a grimly funny, gorgeously photographed epic that builds up the iconography of old, romantic Westerns and then delights in toppling it. It’s a story with a midpoint twist so audacious, you can’t help but revel in its absurdity.
At the same time, Damsel is perhaps too pleased with the ways in which it subverts the genre it’s working within. The film mostly exists to point out the racist and sexist structures inherent to the Western, to the concepts of gunslinging heroes and damsels in distress. But it is far from the first revisionist Western to make those kinds of observations. Though it’s well-acted, often incredible to look at, and filled with straightforward slapstick humor, Damsel doesn’t have much to offer beyond its shocking second-act plot reversal. As an indie film with a clever gimmick, it’s worth seeing, though it never quite sustains the sweeping feel of its first two scenes.
The Zellner Brothers are clearly fascinated with the blurry line between Hollywood fantasy and reality, and the brutality of life that’s often lost in translation. Their last movie, the excellent Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (which was written by both of them and directed by David), fictionalized the urban legend of Takako Konishi, a Japanese woman who died in Minnesota and was (falsely) rumored to be searching for the buried bag of money from the Coen Brothers film Fargo. Kumiko was a wonderful transmutation of movie myth, a tragic tale that had real pathos while still exulting in the surrealism of Kumiko’s quest.
Damsel has the latter, but is lacking in the former. After the film’s stunning opener, it shifts its perspective to Samuel, a wealthy young pioneer who’s embarking on a quest to liberate Penelope, his one true love. She’s been kidnapped and is being held hostage by a rival, he claims; he recruits Henry to help retrieve her and then marry them on the spot. Samuel is attractive (aside from his crooked teeth) and full of bravado, and he’s outfitted with a guitar (on which he strums love ballads) and a miniature horse named Butterscotch that he aims to present as Penelope’s wedding gift.
He’s a classic fop out of a Coen Brothers comedy, a faux leading man whose opinion of himself is the butt of every joke. It’s yet another chance for Pattinson, who has fast become one of Hollywood’s most interesting actors, to mock his own marquee-idol charisma; add this role to the nervy scumbum he played in Good Time, his bearded misanthrope in The Lost City of Z, and the apathetic billionaire in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Pattinson is terrific in Damsel, but his character’s very existence is a gag at the expense of his star power. He’s more than game for the satirical undercutting the Zellners are pushing, but the movie can’t succeed on that trope alone.
The real lead of Damsel is Henry, played with a flat, adorably unassuming affect by David Zellner (the other Zellner brother plays a bearded roustabout they meet along the way). As Damsel’s perspective shifts more toward Henry and Penelope, both of whom are intended to represent the reality of America’s push westward, it struggles to have as much fun. When it’s digging into the bleak comedy of Samuel’s ridiculous crusade, Damsel is a blast—a worthy spoof of Hollywood’s golden-age narrative of men on horseback swooping in and saving the day. But beyond that, there’s little else to it.