Dating is hard, especially in the Old West. Nobody knows this difficult truth better than Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who can’t seem to shake the numerous doofuses who fall in love with her at every turn. The worst of them is Samuel (Robert Pattinson), who claims to be Penelope’s fiancé, but may just be a total scoundrel looking to ruin the girl’s perfect life. According to Sam – who rolls into town with two guns and a guitar strapped across his back – his love’s been kidnapped. Now, only the silver-toothed weirdo and his new companion – a stumblebum in a preacher’s outfit (co-director David Zellner) who is really no man of God at all – can save her from a gun-slinging creep holed up in a cabin. So, the two venture West, headed to rescue Princess Penelope and then maybe (if they’re lucky) see the ocean.
However, don’t count on the Zellner Bros. to really deliver anything resembling a straight-ahead plot. Damsel – their follow-up to 2014’s enigmatic Fargo riff Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter – is an anti-Western of the distinctly Jarmuschian brand, stopping for numerous digressions before finally arriving at its point: finding someone to allay the loneliness of life is probably its greatest challenge of all. There’s an existential sweetness to this (probably overlong) goofball genre riff, as the Zellners occasionally stop for a brain-splattering shoot out or full-scale domicile detonation along the way. Theirs is a cinema where everyone is seemingly waiting for Godot, hoping that the answers to life’s mysteries are just over the next hill (and if they ain’t, just keep on trudging along).
The brothers’ penchant for tangents is presented during the first scene, as we learn where David Zellner’s sad drunk – seated on a bench with an actual preacher (Robert Forster), waiting for a stagecoach that will never come – obtained his priest get-up. Forster’s servant of the cloth finally says he’s had enough; the “savages” didn’t want any part of the religion he was selling, and there’s nothing really left to search for out West. In a defeated fit, he tosses his bible to the drunk, strips off his garments, and runs out into the desert screaming “I’m coming Lord!” Better with Him than alone, we reckon, not knowing the whiskey-swilling miscreant will become a consummate Sancho Panza, riding along with several cowboys much more convincing (or, in Penelope’s case, flat out intimidating) than he could ever hope to be.
Since the Twilight franchise ended, Pattinson has been working double time to distance himself from any sort of pretty boy image. The mentally slower brother in David Michôd’s The Rover, his David Cronenberg duology, last year’s utterly mesmerizing Good Time (where he pulled a “Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time” and went full scumbag): all are spectacular additions to his growing resume of idiosyncratic turns. Damsel’s dancing, crooning, twerpy-voiced con man is just the latest showcase for the former YA heartthrob’s series of weird tics and rubbery facial expressions. Pattinson is a delight to watch, hee-hawing, caring for a mini-pony named Butterscotch, and dancing around David Zellner, whose easily swindled drifter makes our hearts hurt just a little as we laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. These are cartoon characters caught on a soulful, widescreen stage – brought to sunny life thanks to regular Jeff Nichols DP Adam Stone (Mud) – each having as much fun as they can attempting to deliver a healthy dose of happy/sad.
However, none of this would work if it weren't for Wasikowska, who becomes the burning sun that all these dumbass planets revolve around. Delivering a totally different sort of take on the titular trope than we probably expect, Penelope’s a gorgeous, Old West survivor who's seen the worst men can throw at her, absorbing that energy only to toss it all back in their faces. An aura of constant annoyance floats over this frontier queen’s golden crown, as we can tell she'd just prefer to be left alone. None of these guys are good enough for her and, unlike their insecure, aching hearts, Penelope would rather be alone if she doesn't feel burning passion for a partner. She's the strength of pestered women held up against the fragility of bumbling men, gracefully carrying each scene she's in with razor sharp comedic timing.
Creating a rather integral piece to this rather unusual reinvention of the cowboy epoch is the alternately plucked and glittering guitar/ambient score from The Octopus Project. As these weirdos keep traversing toward the Pacific – encountering Native Americans and an assortment of ruffians (each scenario built around an absurd grotesquerie that’s explained by the meeting’s end) – the OST clashes with the sun-soaked portraits of a time we more readily associate with ruthless bloodshed than intermittent silliness. It’s all so patently unusual, never really hurrying for any narrative reason, before arriving to a declarative thematic moment that neatly sums it all up for those in the cheap seats. Will Damsel be for all tastes? Certainly not (the lack of propulsion is sure to bore many). Yet the Zellners are certainly assembling an oeuvre that’s distinctly their own, utterly unafraid to veer off the beaten path to their quirky characters’ hearts’ desire.