'Damsel' Review: An Old West Comedy That's Almost Too Strait-Laced To Be Believed [Sundance]

One of the earliest images we're given in Damsel, the latest from filmmakers David & Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter), is of our presumed protagonists sharing a dance. Samuel (Robert Pattinson in full good-guy mode) and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) are smiling and skipping along in a kind of line dance and just generally giving the appearance of young love. Considering some of the darker images we see throughout the film, the dancing is a welcome relief.

On the surface, Damsel appears to be the Zellners' attempt to capture all that is vast and pure and sacred about old-school Hollywood Westerns. There are majestic vistas (beautifully photographed by Adam Stone), stately horses (including a miniature one named Buttercup), saloons, a noble Native American (Joseph Billingiere), and what we presume are clear-cut examples of heroes, villains, and the titular damsel in distress. If anything should have made me suspicious of the film's intentions, it's that there are almost too many Western tropes in every corner of the frame. Damsel certainly isn't mocking the Western as a genre, but it does recognize that perhaps things aren't always so clear cut in any story of true love, revenge, heroes and villains.

The handsome, rugged Samuel is practically bursting with purpose as he rides into a town on a quest to find the woman with whom he was dancing, whom we find out is his fiancée, Penelope. He hires a strangely jumpy parson named Henry (David Zellner) to accompany him on this search for her, and once she is found, the preacher can marry them on the spot. Once they head out, Samuel informs Henry that Penelope has been kidnapped, and he not only needs him to marry them but also aid in her rescue.

There are certainly subtle hints along their journey that Samuel isn't being completely open about the entire scenario, and I'm certainly not going to spoil some of Damsel's fun surprises. The Zellners pepper in unusual clues into their film to keep us feeling slightly off-kilter. Certain lines of dialogue seem weirdly anachronistic (I distinctly recall someone using the term "win-win") and Samuel's righteous behavior seems almost too good to be true. More than almost anything, the pacing of the film feels off at times. Some of this may be by design, but once some of the film's major revelations occur, you'd expect the molasses-like forward momentum might pick up a bit; it does not, and Damsel's biggest drawback is that it drags more often than not.

Even so, the film is quite funny. As the title might lead you to believe, one of the points of the movie is to dismantle the idea that every female in a Western is in desperate need of saving. Wasikowska's Penelope is the toughest and most self-reliant character in this story populated primarily by men who are way in over their heads. The action moves from location to location, and the group meets new obstacles on their journey to the closest big town. There's more than a passing nod to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, a film that strikes a similar ratio of odd behavior to leisurely pacing. Late in the film, we meet a mountain man named Rufus (Nathan Zellner), who it turns out is the brother of another character, and the way he interacts with the group is so outrageous and surreal that it defies description and is clearly meant to be awkwardly humorous. I mostly just wanted him to disappear, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that my response isn't the desired one by the Zellners.

Still, with each new chapter in this journey filled with the unexpected and unexplained, we learn a little bit more about these riders and what they are made of, with Penelope remaining the most interesting character of the bunch. She clings to a rifle with a severely bent muzzle, almost in defiance of those who would do her harm. She might be aiming at the person next to you, but the bullet could just as easily curve in your direction. The irony of her gun is that Penelope is the only straight shooter when it comes to rationalizing any given extreme situation she might be in.

With their previous film, Kumiko, the Zellner brothers redefined what a cool, unexpected road movie could be, and the stage seemed set for them to do the same with Damsel. And while much of the humor will likely bring a smile to your face (this is more situational humor than flat-out jokes), neither the comedy nor the twisted way they look at Westerns quite amount to the wholly original take on the subject that is long overdue. However, there's just enough pretzel logic and devotion to wacky personalities to make Damsel mildly infectious and charming.

Pattinson's commitment to continually reinventing himself is commendable and has been largely successful (the differences between the character he played in last year's Good Time and this lovable goodie two-shoes are many). And much the same could be said for the Zellners, who go out of their way with each movie (this being their sixth feature) to tackle a completely different genre, bringing their warped perspective to each project, and illuminating familiar tropes in a new light. Damsel might not hit the mark every time, but it's clear the brothers are trying something unique, which is more than most filmmakers can say. The highest compliment you can pay any director is that you can't wait to see what they have in store for us next, and that's exactly my reaction to every Zellner brothers work.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10