During an early conversation between a wayward young man (Robert Pattinson) and the parson (David Zellner) he hires to help reunite him with his equally wayward girlfriend (Mia Wasikowska), the parson describes himself as a”neophyte,” When pressed harder by the young man, the parson replies, “I don’t know. It’s some fancy word I heard in Baltimore.”
So begins the carousel of playacting, misguided communication and role reversals that will come to define the action throughout Damsel, the latest film from independent writing/directing brothers Nathan and David Zellner. Nothing is as it seems, and no one exactly lives up to their expected persona. Part of the film’s energy comes from the subversive way in which it toys with the oft-conceived characters that typically populate a film that takes place during the 1860’s in America’s Western frontier. In fact, Damsel works best in its second half once the goofy Pattinson has moved aside for Mia Wasikowska’s genre-busting actions and the way in which she handles herself. For good reason, Damsel has been described as a ‘feminist western,’ and judging by how much stock one places in that term, it certainly succeeds when the female takes the reigns.
Playing his character of Samuel with one eye towards the Three Stooges and the other on a genial good ol’ boy of dynamic proportions, Pattinson finds himself in the American West (actually Oregon) searching for his fiance, who he claims was stolen by another man. It’s in the film’s first half that the cliches of the Old West are presented, from the drunken insults of a saloon patron because Samuel is too weak to finish his whiskey to the unshaven and cold faces of everyone he passes.
Once Samuel hires Parson Henry (David Zellner, in a performance just as aloof) to travel with him and marry the couple once he finds and ‘saves’ his fiance Penelope (Wasikowska), Damsel goes through several permutations and proceeds to prick all the air out of the carefully designed “Old West.” Truth is stranger than fiction. People once thought dead re-emerge. Largely cliched cinematic “Western” villains, such as roving “Indians,” are provided with just as much uncertainty and humor as the main characters. Even the music, composed by folk-rock experimental group The Octopus Project, wavers between something one might find in the Zellner Brothers trippy indie short films and a good old-fashioned hootenanny. This spirit of unpredictability drives Damsel forward, even if one sort of figures out where it’s headed early on.
Also in keeping with the capricious nature of the Zellner Brothers script, it’s a film that’s strangely funny one moment and full of cruel, dry violence the next, which epitomizes the whiplash sentiments that swirl in a fight-or-flight environment. Much like they explored the foreign expanse of the arctic Midwest to a Japanese woman in search for fictional buried loot in their previous film, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014, and see this film now), Damsel is also a weirdly demented search for lost love in a foreign expanse where no head is safe from a gunshot or torso immune from an arrow. Basically, the outsiders in a Zellner Brothers film are in for a rough time.
If there’s any fault to Damsel, it’s that the second half plays far better than the first. Even though he’s currently on a critical hot streak with wizened project choices, Pattinson’s Samuel is a bit broad, chipped dead tooth and all. Perhaps this was the intention, creating a diametric opposite of Wasikowska’s curt and tough Penelope. Either way, she steals the movie and shatters the age-old illusion that women in the Old West are there to be saved or fought over. For once, she’s the one holding her own, and the men can only sit by the wayside and watch her float by.
Damsel opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, June 29.