DAMSEL Review: Distressing Unevenness, Rescued by the Performances

Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska keep this offbeat Western watchable.

Robert Pattinson continues to explore new territory—as an actor and geographically—in David and Nathan Zellner’s script-flipping Western Damsel. Following up his electrifying turn as a Queens schemer in Josh and Benny Safdie’s criminally underseen Good Time, Pattinson plays Samuel Alabaster, a naïf with a heart of gold and a head evidently filled with somewhat softer stuff, navigating an Old West that’s just as unsympathetic as Good Time’s New York and a storyline with as many twists as the Safdies’.

The very title hints that the filmmaking brothers will be playing with archetypes here, including their damsel. We don’t meet Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) until well into the running time, and when we do, she’s not the shrinking violet the term suggests. Penelope is her own woman, very much capable of taking charge, and Wasikowska gives her a bracing sense of self-determination. The two leads go a long way toward keeping a viewer engaged with Damsel, even as the Zellners’ deadpan-satirical approach has the effect of placing them at arm’s length from the audience.

The Zellners do get off to a bright start, as an almost unrecognizably grizzled Robert Forster pulls off the difficult trick of stealing the movie in its very first scene. He plays a weary preacher retiring from his mission of attempting to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and has a wonderfully measured conversation with another religious man, Parson Henry (David Zellner), at a middle-of-nowhere stagecoach stop. The rhythms and cadences of their words are a delight to listen to, and it’s a shame this is Forster’s only scene. Instead, Parson Henry is next seen being greeted by Samuel, who has hired him to trek to Penelope’s home and marry the two of them.

Samuel is an unabashed romantic—he has even brought along a miniature horse named Butterscotch as a gift for Penelope—and a good-hearted innocent in a West full of strange and occasionally grotesque scoundrels. Pattinson finds just the right note for Samuel, playing him as simple but not a simpleton, driven by his devotion to Love with a capital L. And then, once he and Parson Henry have set out on their trek, the Zellners puncture his hearts-and-flowers aura as we glimpse Samuel masturbating to a picture of his bride-to-be. Later in the film, a shooting victim is left lying in the dirt with both his brains and his schlong exposed.

Visceral bits like this signal that Damsel is both a conscious subversion of sagebrush sagas and a catch-all homage to the form’s many variations—as if the spirit of the raunchiest Italian Westerns is intruding on a John Ford picture. The Zellners mix very old-fashioned storytelling tropes with modern attitudes, as when Penelope insists that others keep out of her personal space. And they spring a series of plot reversals, starting at around the halfway mark, that upend our expectations and reveal the characters in an entirely new light.

It doesn’t all quite work; once the movie springs its surprises, it doesn’t have much more story to tell, and becomes meandering where it should be getting tighter. As a result, there’s not much to Damsel’s later portions beyond its deconstructive attitude, and the stately pace gives us too much time to notice it when we should be more caught up in what the characters are doing. On a craft level, the film is certainly consistent, and in the genre’s classic spirit: Adam Stone contributes the genre’s expected gorgeous cinematography of the scenery, from red-and-orange mesas to lush green valleys (the movie was shot in Utah), backed by a flavorful score by The Octopus Project. The Zellners are clearly fans who know the conventions of the Western inside and out, and perhaps were a little too committed to pulling their own variations on the theme to assure that the overall picture is more accessible. It falls to the cast to save Damsel, and the two leads succeed in making us want to ride with the film all the way into the sunset.