As soon as Damsel opens with a preacher shedding his church garb and running into the desert chasing after God, you can tell that something is a little cock-eyed. Robert Pattinson walks into a small Western town leading his horse, but the horse is the size of a pygmy goat. He finds a bar and orders a beer but they only have whiskey. When he doesn’t want the whiskey, the local drunk challenges his manhood, and he meekly agrees. His stomach, anyway, isn’t much of a man. This is Jim Jarmusch territory, twisting Western tropes into absurdities, though it’s a bit more goofy than Dead Man.
Pattinson has hired a preacher to accompany him into the wilderness to rescue his one true love from the evil men who kidnapped her. He wants the preacher to marry them on the spot; he’s got the ring, the wedding gift, and he’s written a song to serenade her. Except the preacher’s not a preacher, and a rescue is not exactly what Pattinson has planned. I don’t want to give away too much, because I was impressed and entertained by how coy the filmmakers manage to be about what’s really going on, but let’s just say that things go sideways, and before too long, the preacher and Mia Wasikowska are trying to find their way back to that small Western town.
Damsel is an enjoyably off-kilter film heading up to its big twist, as well as in the ten or so minutes after it. Robert Pattinson continues to show impressive range, and finds the right off-kilter comedic tone for his character. Mia Wasikowska, on the other hand, delivers another flat performance that makes me wonder, once again, why she keeps getting cast and considered a viable lead. But the film fittingly, belongs to David Zellner, who wrote and directed (alongside his brother Nathan) and plays the dumb but lovable preacher.
Damsel’s feminist take on Western tropes, while not exactly profound or deeply developed, nevertheless made me cackle as they played out. The Zellners have firm control of the odd, unique tone of their film, and that’s a feat. The problem is, it goes on for nearly an hour after the twist, with nothing at stake. The absence of Pattinson is sorely felt, and the film just coasts to an eventual stop like a vehicle out of gas. There’s really not much reason to watch beyond the first hour, as the Zellners keep hitting basically the same marks, but with vastly diminishing returns. This is an enjoyable movie with a fun, if not exactly profound idea pursued in a playful way, but it really would have been a lot stronger if it had been half as long.