Damsel begins with a Western-style Waiting For Godot: two men, sitting in the desert, waiting for a carriage that you just know without being told will never come. One of the men is a preacher (played by the inimitable Robert Forster), and the scene ends with him stripping down naked and running, flailing, towards the horizon.
That cinematic vignette, maybe one of the best few minutes I’ve seen on screen all year, more or less sums up Damsel, the western send-up from directors the Zellner Brothers (who also co-star in supporting roles.) The film is unpredictable and bizarre, stunningly beautiful and weird in the best ways, so different from what you’re probably expecting, both in terms of pacing, style, and story, that I almost wish you’d go see the movie, and then come back and read this review afterward so that the sheer delight of discovering it for yourself isn’t compromised.
Robert Pattinson—continuing his string of Twilight-erasing indies—stars as the toothy, twang-talking Samuel Alabaster, in a performance so delightfully unhinged it harkens back to Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja. Samuel is the type of man who sips a shot of whiskey because he has a delicate tummy, and who more-or-less holds acquaintances hostage while making them listen to the terrible song he wrote for the girl he’s planning on marrying. He is the archetype of frontier manliness filtered through a modern lens: the most egregious toxic masculinity isn’t physical strength, but an attitude of entitlement.
Mia Wasikowska is the brains of the pair, the tough-as-nails Penelope (cross “Odyssey reference” off from your indie movie bingo card), who, it becomes increasingly obvious, is not a damsel that requires saving. The comedy is dry—Pattinson escorts a tiny miniature horse across the prairie; there’s the aforementioned terrible love song—and if the shots weren’t individually so beautiful I’d say Damsel would have worked better as a play. As it is, I find it difficult to review within the metrics of film criticism: I’m supposed to give it a letter grade from A to F when it feels more like Damsel deserves like, an upside-down Q.
The real heart of the movie is the unearthly score from electronica band The Octopus Project. If a western movie with an electronic-adjacent store makes you shake your head, this will not be the movie for you. As it is, Damsel will inspire either bored indifference or cult exaltation in a viewer (I doubt there will be a middle ground). Far from a perfect film—the morals are clunky, the pacing awkward at points—Damsel still manages to achieve the rare distinction of being both ambitious and just so much goddam fun.