The subversive new western comedy from the writing/directing team of David and Nathan Zellner is at once bold and cartoonish. It exists in a world of crooked rifles and one-eyed dogs. Seeking to defy our every expectation, Damsel lacks a real ending, but it doesn't really matter. Getting there is too much fun.
To evade ruin, I'll only say Damsel begins with hope. A parson (D. Zellner) looks for a fresh start in the west, and a starry-eyed troubadour named Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) hires him to officiate his prospective wedding. Samuel is searching for his lost love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom we only meet in flashback initially.
To win Penelope's heart, Samuel brings her a present — a miniature horse named "Buttercup." The cartoon has begun. Other early scenes include men wearing barrels, men being scrubbed in soapy tubs, a plan drawn in the dirt, a plunger detonator, and a hanging, whereby the charges are read as follows: "Skullduggery, skullthuggery, and... skull... buggery!" It's better than Merrie Melodies. And the details create a light atmosphere that further subverts the usual no-nonsense western.
Damsel begins like gangbusters with all these characters and sights and sounds. It will lead you to believe the chivalrous title is apt. The film is set in a time of rehearsed courtship, however life isn't always so mannered. Despite Samuel's best intentions, things happen that send his plans off course and he's forced to face hard truths. The damsel in his mind is likely anything but.
The Zellners actually redefine many genre tropes as their film goes on. The damsel, the hero, the sidekick — these definitions are all toyed with and discarded with glorious abandon. The characters of the film, each of them, are full of surprises.
Even the dialogue is hackneyed, which only adds to the humor and lends a little Coen flavor to the writing. Characters speak in clichés, sometimes three at a time: "Stay put. I got my eye on you. No funny business." Every sentence is a jewel, and the actors deliver their lines perfectly... even if some gags are repeated and repeated again.
Pattinson and Wasikowska (who also appeared in Maps to the Stars together), lead Damsel with very different performances. Pattinson, who's quickly amassing a very impressive resume, shows a true comedic touch and devotion to the material. He's hard not to love here. And Wasikowska, who's so good when playing angry, is the film's heart. She's thoroughly out of place amongst all the cartoon characters.
While Damsel may frustrate some with its meandering plot and non-sensical narrative decisions, it's worth considering the value of movies like this. There are no rules to this game. Bonafide westerns are a dying breed in American filmmaking, but Damsel proves the genre can yield new results with the right story, or lack thereof.