The Zellner Brothers have done it again: Managed to take what seems like an unsinkable concept for their new film Damsel — a revisionist western that parodies each and every trope of the genre with loving detail — and managed to execute it in a flat and empty way, like they did with their previous film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It’s among the biggest disappointments of the year in cinema so far, and what meager pleasures it offers (a fun cast, some beautiful cinematography, a few decent gags) aren’t nearly worth the labor it takes to stay away through its second half. It’s got a cute miniature horse, though, so perhaps it’s not a total loss.
Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska are top-billed as the stars of this film, but it’s actually the story of Parson Henry, played here by one of the film’s directors, David Zellner. His feature in this film feels indicative of a larger problem, but he does an effective enough job, especially when surrounded by actors like Robert Forster (who shows up in a cameo at the start) and the late Joseph Billingiere, who elevates each of Zellner’s attempts at humor with a simple facial expression. Anyways, the Parson, who in truth is a drunk mainly looking for a “fresh start” in the West after grief pushed him out of his hometown of Baltimore, is recruited by an idiot named Samuel (Pattinson) to help him marry his “long-time fiancee” Penelope (Wasikowska).
Along the way, you can see the cracks in his story begin to show, and he slowly starts to shift from lovesick loser to a wholly malevolent presence. They’re riding in the lush California wilderness, which is a nice change in landscape from the Monument Valley deserts of John Ford and ultimately winds up closer to something like Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as if that film’s forests had been covered by an amber glow.
Pattinson’s character ultimately lands somewhere between Gene Autry and Rusty from Adult Swim’s Squidbillies, and he’s excellent at what he does here, subverting his matinee idol image in service to the film’s ultimate point. The song he’s written for his fiancee is perhaps the film’s best laugh, aside from one particularly gory moment near the middle of the film, in which the Zellners literally take the piss. He even gets a perfectly satisfying comeuppance from Wasikowska, who don’t need no saving from no man, but when he disappears from the film, the whole thing grinds to a painful halt. The comedic dynamic is shaken up, Zellner can’t fill the void with his mealy-mouthed parson, and Wasikowska glowers her way through an extra hour of somewhat unnecessary plot, one that features the other Zellner, Nathan, doing his best tight five in a Daniel Boone costume. The humor slowly evaporates out of the theater, and the film’s conclusion, while again in service of a greater theme about “damsels in distress,” ultimately just feels like a whiff that has been done better in hundreds of other movies.
I was bored senseless by the last half-hour of Damsel, for whatever reason. Perhaps it’s because the surrealist humor exhausts itself by the hour-thirty mark, perhaps it’s because Wasikowska is once again forced to play the straight man to the goofy shit that’s happening around her, perhaps it’s just because I don’t find the Zellners themselves particularly funny, especially when good actors could have been hired to portray both of their roles (again, there’s a point to their inclusion in the film, it’s just that their unfunniness sort of overwhelms the satisfaction of understanding). But if you like Robert Pattinson and miniature horses named Butterscotch, you’ll probably at least find something worthwhile in Damsel, which means that it wasn’t a total waste of time for me as well! Just realize what you’re getting yourself into, though, and bring a Red Bull. You’ll need it.