'Damsel': Robert Pattinson's neo-western shoots itself in its hipster foot

Damsel takes its title from the outdated idea of the damsel in distress, a concept that gets systematically overturned in this offbeat western.

The film stars Robert Pattinson as Samuel Alabaster, a foppishly dressed tenderfoot who shows up in the Oregon Territory with a miniature horse named Butterscotch, looking to hire a preacher (David Zellner) for a wedding. He finds the fellow lying passed out in the sand, covered with crabs, although as we know from the prologue, the guy is not really a preacher, and probably not really sober.

Nevertheless, off they go, on a trek into the wilderness to find Samuel’s missing fiancée, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).

As these few details suggest, the movie is aggressively weird, as is often the case with the work of directors-brothers David and Nathan Zellner (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter).  Fans will find things to enjoy, but I found the movie’s charms resistible. First on my list of irritants was the Zellners’ habit of inserting modern dialogue into their period story. Characters talk about giving “100 percent” or “sending mixed signals.” The cowardly preacher asks Samuel, as they cross the prairie: “Technically speaking, are we in Indian country?“

“Technically speaking,” he replies, “it’s all Indian country.”

The words used and attitudes expressed are contemporary. This is jarring (and a little self-congratulatory), but also too consistent to be a mistake – the Zellners surely want the modernized hipster dialogue to add to the surreal tone of the movie.

That tone turns up in the visuals, too – the miniature horse travels with a caged chicken on its back, often the centerpiece of droll, absurdist compositions as Samuel and his woebegone posse of one make their way into the high country.

The movie, by the way, is beautifully shot by Adam Stone, and the thoughtful period detail of the production design combined with the sweeping vistas make Damsel feel at times like a classic western rather than a mockery of one – like an episode of Drunk History, by way of John Ford.

The plot is slow to take hold. Half the movie unfolds before Samuel locates Penelope, and Wasikowska finally gets a chance to fill out Penelope as a ferociously independent woman a century ahead of her time.

Men constantly offer to provide her help she does not need. The movie becomes an odyssey (complete with nods to Homer) of masculine obstacles, and there are quite of few of them in her path – in the form of a homesteader, a fur trapper, an Indian.

The latter is not on Penelope’s mind when she complains of a “hostile environment.” It’s another of the movie’s flagrant anachronisms, by this time the movie’s prevailing and defining attribute. Damsel is designed to be a deliberately out-of-joint comedy about a woman forced to endure an exasperating ordeal.

After two hours, I could relate.

MOVIES

Damsel

  • Directed by David and Nathan Zellner. With Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, Robert Forster, David Zellner and Nathan Zellner. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
  • Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (violence)
  • Playing at: Ritz Five