Westerns are like blank sheets of paper. Anything goes, whether it’s drama, horror, comedy, action, or all of the above, which is likely why most filmmakers try their hand at the proverbial rodeo. More recently, the dusty genre has had something of a resurgence, particularly in the indie circuit, thanks to commendable efforts by filmmakers like John Maclean (Slow West), Ti West (In a Valley of Violence), and S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk). Now, brothers David and Nathan Zellner are tipping their hats with Damsel, a twist on the genre as unorthodox and unexpected as their previous indie hit, 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Written and directed by both Zellners, Damsel follows a young man by the name of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who’s on a quest to save his future bride, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), from her captors. With a squeaky-clean guitar and a brand-new rifle at his side, Alabaster has his whole agenda down to a tee, treating the Wild West like a board game. Along the way, he picks up a miniature horse named Butterscotch and even bags a down-on-his-luck preacher (David Zellner) to aide him. Together, the two stumble into myriad adventures that keep getting weirder and straight out of left field.
It’s admittedly tough to write about this movie without absolutely ruining it. The twists and turns are paramount to the experience, which adds up to being a fun little romp that’s at its worst meandering and at its best sublime. Similar to Kumiko, Damsel has a knack for taking the road less traveled, which is partly why this Western stands taller than some of its peers. Characters come and go, history is treated liberally, and tropes aren’t just subverted, they’re quashed. It’s a little like Richard Donner’s Maverick, only with far less stakes and much more visual comedy — you know, the stoic kind that fits the genre.
Pattinson and Wasikowska squeeze into their respective scenes like leather boots over velvet socks, oozing with personality and a cadence that steals every scene. Pattinson, in particular, is a total delight, his dubious heroics undoubtedly the film’s raison d’être, and another lap in his epic run that sped up last year with Good Time and The Lost City of Z. Wasikowska, by comparison, delivers a more vocal performance, and the way she barks at Zellner’s hapless pastor makes for some of the film’s brightest moments. Though, neither would really work without Zellner, who serves as a great whipping post for the two.
Without spoiling too much, Damsel, similar to Revenge, fiddles around with the genre to mixed results. Narratively, the Zellners are always looking to zag, and while that leads to some surprising passages, not all of them are safe. Instead, they often spill into dead ends, forcing them to backtrack and carry on elsewhere. This gets a little tiresome, especially about three-fourths into the movie, but never to the point that you’re hemming or hawing. No, there are enough yucks — not to mention, a balmy, brilliant score by The Octopus Project — to keep this stagecoach at a speed, we reckon, is most satisfactory.
To top it all off, you get five minutes with Robert Forster. Yahoo.