Some piquant comedy sketch work and an obvious affinity for Westerns are not enough to fill out the nearly two hours of Damsel. This latest film buffery-drenched, odyssey-styled amusement from the Zellner Brothers — David and Nathan — is lovely to look at, playfully goofs around with genre tropes and shows Robert Pattinson in a favorable new light. But the writer-directors are so intent on upending expectations and startling the audience that the effort shows far too much and, in the weak second half, ends up being terribly self-conscious. The filmmakers’ cult following won’t get this very far commercially.
The slow-burn comic cadences of the opening scene create great expectations. Sitting along a road in the middle of a stunningly desolate red rock canyon (actually Utah’s Goblin Valley), a young man and an old man wait patiently for stagecoaches to come along to take them in different directions.
The old man, a preacher, who’s headed back east, says he’s done trying to convert natives to Christianity, they’re just not interested. And there are enough Christians anyway. The young man, of course, is going west and asks the old-timer about the different tribes he’s encountered. The conversation is beautifully paced with pauses and each word weighed. Then something unexpected happens out of the blue that, in its unusual way, sets the scene for some of the further strangeness to come. Robert Forster is outstanding as the grizzled old coot.
Weirdness continues as the young man, Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson), makes his way into a rough and tiny town along with his dwarf horse, Butterscotch, that’s only big enough to carry a caged chicken on its back. This attracts the attention of the locals, each nastier than the last, and the Zellners indisputably reveal a partiality to the weird and grotesque: a fat man who gives the elegantly accoutred Samuel a hard time, a hostile bartender whose establishment only offers rotgut, a bizarre public hanging and an open-air grooming salon that’s an homage to Sam Fuller’s 1957 Western Forty Guns.
But Samuel finds who he’s looking for, Parson Henry (David Zellner), whom he has agreed to pay well for accompanying him to the remote home of a woman named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) and marrying them at once. The parson is a nervous, uncertain sort, but the money is generous and Samuel, with his great looks, friendly manner and general gregariousness, seems like a man you can trust, so off the two men go to find the bride.
Along the way, the two wayfarers do have to deal with a cyclops of sorts, but finally find the lovely Penelope in a remote cabin. Nothing about what happens in the second half should be revealed, but suffice it to say that nothing the men find is quite as advertised.
After all the peppery details and disarming distractions of the setup, the subsequent letdown is considerable. While fierce and capably self-protective, Penelope is such a one-note character that there’s little Wasikowska can do to expand upon it. Even more unfortunate is the lackluster and ultimately annoying Parson Henry, who comes more to the fore at this point, leaving the film none the better for it; the further truth is that David Zellner can’t hold his own with the other actors. The film is like a steak that’s been cooked on one side and not the other; you want to send it back.
This is a shame, as the brothers clearly have an affinity for the genre and for how to play with some of its tropes. All the locations are terrific, notably some seaside spots in Oregon. Especially good, too, is the score by The Octopus Project, an electrified combination of banjo, musical saw, fiddle, guitar and flute.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production: Great Point Media
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Joseph Billingiere, Robert Forster
Directors: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Screenwriters: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Producers: Nathan Zellner, Chris Ohlson
Executive producers: Jim Reeve, Robert Halmi Jr.
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Editor: Melba Robichaux
Music: The Octopus Project