Written and Directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Joseph Billingiere, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, and Robert Forster.
It’s the Wild West, circa 1870. Samuel Alabaster, an affluent pioneer, ventures across the American frontier to marry the love of his life, Penelope. As his group traverses the west, the once-simple journey grows treacherous, blurring the lines between hero, villain and damsel.
Robert Pattinson is a lover, not a fighter. Playing a businessman named Samuel in the days of the old West, he decides to travel across the country to reunite with his beloved fiancé Penelope (Mia Wasikowska, who I’ll have you know right off the bat is more than just the titular damsel in distress) believing her to be kidnapped by a local gang of outlaws as she is described as a trophy woman. However, considering this is a film by the Zellner brothers, the trek across the frontier is about as idiosyncratic as they come, complete with gruff men comparing the sizes of their Adam’s Apple’s (surprisingly, that’s not a euphemism for penis), prized proposal ponies along for the journey, and a highly expressive performance from the aforementioned Twilight star turned independent scene treasure that would be the best of his career had Good Time not been released last year.
Samuel is nothing like the stereotypical man living in this particular time era (keep in mind a specific date is not explicitly mentioned, but it’s also not necessary anyway); he is disinterested in enlisting a posse of his own to storm the quarters of which Penelope is being held, instead opting to pay a preacher (director David Zellner performing triple duty) a hefty sum of money to travel with him solely to officiate the wedding immediately upon freeing her from captivity. The journey is filled with Samuel gushing over his bride to be, telling campfire stories about their unshakable bond while also showing off a locket containing her beautiful portrait (a photograph he also masturbates to one morning in one of the film’s many dry successful attempts at humor), and talks of an eternally happy future.
Here’s the thing about Damsel, it’s one of those tricky movies to write about; the second half is far more complicated than one might assume going in, and in some ways subversive to a fault as once a pivotable moment comes and goes the perspective and character dynamics of the narrative shift. All I will say is that Mia Wasikowska is granted the opportunity of carrying the film and that the buzzword “damsel” is a bit misleading, but for the remainder of the unpredictable events to unfold the term will linger in your mind as you associate it with others. Regardless, the filmmakers, as talented as they are at maintaining the quirkiness throughout, are stretching the plot incredibly thin over time. In hindsight, there are probably a few tidbits with Samuel that could also be chopped out without losing anything. It’s also important to note that no blame should be placed on Mia, and although it is difficult to talk about her role without spoiling her character, she delivers a passionate turn built on grief and scorned rage. She certainly is no damsel.
Visually and sonically, Damsel is a striking film to gander at and not just because of the appealing wilderness scenery, but also some clever photography ranging from panned back shots of Samuel setting free a pony from its cage after traveling via boat, absurdist images of a nude man covered up inside of a barrel being hung from a noose, and a hilarious segment of Samuel formulating and explaining a rescue plan by making use of random nature related objects on the ground. The music also ranges from appropriately oddball to calm, especially over a memorable shot of a chicken about to have his head chopped off in preparation for roasting.
Unfortunately, Damsel simply fizzles out immediately following its explosive centerpiece sequence that will accomplish everything from eliciting major laughs to sadness. There is no need to extend the film another 50 minutes to get across the obvious point; a short and sweet third act would have sufficed. Still, there is an overarching theme centered on the search for love, and it’s a quest that these characters all go about in different ways, but rarely is there any optimism in these harsh lands. The frustrations of the pacing are made all the more irritating by a terrifically tragic ending where it becomes clear who really is the damsel (although you might pick up on it before that). Flaws aside, Damsel in unabashedly bizarre, zigs and zags like a cartographer getting lost in the wilderness, and contains Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska pulling off a pair of challenging roles.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com