The painfully self-conscious script and often cringe-worthy dialogue of this would-be genre subversion ruins a gorgeous but ultimately empty film that would have been better off silent.
The latest from brothers David and Nathan Zellner, Damsel, is a visually impressive reinvention of the Western. Boasting pitch-perfect postcard landscapes, an evocative score, beautiful lead actors and expressive supporting players, the movie had a lot of potential to match the brothers’ evocative 2014 feature Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter. But where that film successfully navigated a fine line between melancholy and preciousness, the painfully self-conscious script and often cringe-worthy dialogue of this would-be genre subversion ruins a gorgeous but ultimately empty film that would have been better off silent.
The movie is set in a mythical 19th century West populated by characters who largely speak with modern sensibilities and too-clever dialogue; for instance, a law enforcer presiding over a hanging declares the offender guilty of “skullduggery, skull thuggery and skull buggery.” Into this precisely art-directed but poorly-written world enters Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a goofy, bumbling pioneer traveling across the Wild West with a miniature horse named Butterscotch in tow, a wedding present for his fiancée Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). The bridegroom hires Parson Henry (David Zellner) to journey with him to perform the ceremony that will unite Samuel and Penelope forever.
Pattison is moderately effective playing against type, the smoldering, old-fashioned leading-man looks that served him well as a young adult vampire undercutting the goofiness of this role. As the object of his affection, Wasikowska looks the part of a daguerreotyped 19th-century beauty, and gives her steadfast character robustness atypical of the wispy types she’s often given to play. Damsel has an intriguing premise, subverting the damsel-in-distress trope (“I don’t need saving,” Penelope points out, if you didn’t get it) with what turns out to be a kind of nerdy stalker narrative.
The filmmakers create a rich and credible atmosphere–part of what made the Zellners’ last movie work so well. However, there’s a big But: All too often a character will open their mouth and blurt out some anachronism (in word use or attitude) and take you out of that spell. As an actor, David Zellner was sensitive and realistic as the deputy in Kumiko—the only character that seemed to take her quest seriously—but here he’s little more than a cartoon character, and with sticks of dynamite and a bent-barrel shotgun among the movie’s comic props, it’s no wonder.
Scene after scene of embarrassing dialogue plays out, which makes what works in Damsel that much more frustrating. For instance, as Samuel and Parson Henry begin their wide-angle journey through the scenic American Frontier, set to an Octopus Project score that comes off like the art rock of Popul Vuh with a dash of rural Midwest timbres, the match between sound and image is a thrilling synthesis of Cinemascope Western and arthouse mysticism. But then somebody spoils it. When the Parson tells Samuel that he’s from Baltimore, his errant employer knowingly assures him that this pristine natural vista will look just like it in 20 years.
The quirky Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter wasn’t overwhelmed by its inherent whimsy; Rinko Kikuchi’s central, deadpan performance helped sustain its bittersweet, human scale. Not so with this Damsel; the fleeting moments when it strikes the right tone are exhilarating, which makes its tonal pratfalls that much more distressing.