Robert Pattinson elevates David and Nathan Zellner's western 'Damsel'

By Jake Coyle
Associated Press
Posted6/28/2018 6:00 AM
  • Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) pursues Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom he hopes to marry, in "Damsel."

    Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) pursues Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom he hopes to marry, in "Damsel." Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) takes off on a mission to rescue the woman he loves in "Damsel."

    Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) takes off on a mission to rescue the woman he loves in "Damsel." Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

"Damsel" - ★ ★

Pitiful men pin their hopes on delusions of romance in David and Nathan Zellner's clever and melancholy western "Damsel," an offbeat odyssey about the foolhardiness of believing in the "damsel in distress."

The Zellner brothers' last film, "Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter," was based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who, believing the Coen brothers' "Fargo" to be a true story, travels to wintry North Dakota to find the buried case of cash.

That movie, patiently idiosyncratic, found some poignancy in an absurd, ambling tale about fatally misguided misconceptions, and much is the same in "Damsel." Almost everybody but Mia Wasikowska -- the "damsel" in question -- is tilting at windmills.

The Zellners, who wrote, directed and co-star in the film, have moved to the Old West, and the "Waiting for Godot"-style opening is one of the movie's high points. A defeated-looking preacher (a briefly seen but terrific Robert Forster) joins a man headed West at a comically remote stagecoach stop in the middle of a Monument Valley desert. Before stripping out of his clothes and handing his half-empty Bible (pages have been torn out for kindling, rolling papers and, he bashfully adds, "hygiene") to the traveler, he warns the man that life in the West is no better than anywhere else, just bad in "new and fascinating ways." He then runs off in his long underwear.

Soon arriving is Robert Pattinson's Samuel Alabaster, who enlists Parson Henry (David Zellner) -- the Monument Valley traveler, having inherited the pastor's robe and Bible -- to marry him and his fiancee, Penelope (Wasikowska). With a gold tooth and a miniature horse named Butterscotch, Pattinson gives the film a kick that it lacks when he departs. His Alabaster is prim, peculiar and possibly psychotic. Believing himself gallant, he has a song prepared for Penelope dubbed "Honey Bun." Sample lyric: "You're my horseshoe to my hoof."

It's well into the journey when Alabaster confesses Penelope has been kidnapped, so their mission is a combination rescue-proposal. The mission, naturally, doesn't go quite as Alabaster envisions, and Henry is carried along by the unfolding events. That he isn't a real man of God is little surprise to anyone. "But my heart is the right place," he whimpers.

But, then again, none in "Damsel" are really quite up to the role they imagine themselves in, except for Penelope -- the only sane person in the movie crowded with fools. While the movie isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is, the Zellners have a sweet, likable sense of humor tinged with tragedy. And they remain filmmakers to watch.

• • •

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Robert Forster

Directed by: David and Nathan Zellner

Other: A Magnolia Pictures release. Rated R for violence, language, sexual situations and nudity. In limited release. 113 minutes

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