'Damsel' Movie Review: New Western Comedy Gets Lost in the Woods

Any Western opening on Robert Forster as a frustrated missionary ripping off his clothes and tear-assing across the desert can't be all bad. Damsel is full of such images, like an adorable pony bursting from a crate, or a pig in a bathtub, or a guy waddling around in a barrel, straight out of a 1920s political cartoon. But unlike the previous two movies directed by brothers David and Nathan Zellner, Kid-Thing and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter—each a powerful exploration of how eccentricity can lead us to both sad frictions and ecstatic connections with our fellow humans—Damsel fails to cohere. "Things are going to be shitty in new and fascinating ways," Forster tells Henry (David Zellner), the man who will soon attempt to reinvent himself as a parson with Forster's raiment. You got that right.

After explaining just how Henry (David Zellner) started playing at piousness, Damsel switches to Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), a pretty-boy with rifle and guitar, a fresh arrival in a rundown town. Soon, "Parson" Henry and Alabaster team up and head out into the frontier to find and wed Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), Alabaster's hometown sweetheart, with the adorable miniature horse Butterscotch—"she's a living conversation piece," Alabaster says, proudly—along as a wedding gift.

Damsel certainly knows how to set a tone, quickly situating itself somewhere between the colorful loquaciousness of Tombstone's Doc Holliday and the wistful rocking chair banter of The Ballad of Cable Hogue. But most of all, Damsel feels like a tribute to Dead Man, Jim Jarmusch's revisionist acid Western, with its gallery of chatty eccentrics and quick pivots between irreverent banality and bloodshed.

There's really only one major plot event in Damsel, which will make it difficult to describe the movement of the movie, but suffice to say that Alabaster is one of those self-regarding Nice Guys, convinced that because he's acted so gentlemanly he has earned the hand of Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), regardless of how she feels about it, because, surely, she can see how nice he is.

Wasikowska as Penelope and Pattinson as Samuel Alabaster in "Damsel." Magnolia Pictures

Shortly after Henry and Alabaster catch up to Penelope, Damsel switches to her perspective. It's meant to be a bold reversal, empowering the object of Alabaster's misplaced desire and allowing her to steer the story in a new direction. Instead, it sets Damsel adrift. Penelope is essentially empty as a character, the movie having spent all its time developing Henry and Alabaster instead. Absent any motive of her own—Damsel spends its second half literally wandering in the woods, with no clear destination or objective in mind—Penelope is instead confronted with increasingly silly masculine archetypes, each attempting to sweep her off her feet and failing.

Her first encounter, with a fur-suited trapper (Nathan Zellner) who rants about "the code of the prairie" as he promises to hang Henry "vengeance-style," is typical of the dynamic (and on the wrong side of Damsel's sometimes fun, sometimes overwritten dialogue). After Penelope thoroughly dresses him down, we move on to the next target.

Damsel wants to put Penelope in charge, but instead subjects her to a gauntlet of goofballs, each a thinly veiled caricature of a modern variety of toxic man, like Zacharia (Joseph Billingiere), who introduces himself by interrupting Penelope to ask, "Was that guy bothering you?" There's an honest narrative intention at work, but Damsel can't quite fulfill it. Penelope becomes an avatar of female frustration, defined only by refusing to be what men want her to be—a portrait only visible in the negative, her shape defined by her objections.

"You always said the miniature horse was the cutest, most beautiful critters you've ever seen," Alabaster whines after Penelope rejects Buttercup.

"I never said that!" she responds. But what then does she like? What is the cutest, most beautiful critter to Penelope? Damsel never bothers to ask.