Absurdist indie western Damsel puts a feminist spin on the genre, smuggling jet black gallow’s humor into this romance-tinged quest for love lost. The Zellner have long cherished strangeness and it comes in no shortage here. Quirky and well-acted, Damsel is a call and response to the Westerns of yesteryear, a full-brunted hard-left on familiar genre tropes that is quite often darkly funny and dramatically tragic.
The two center performances are each little gifts; oddball treats in the Zellner’s warped 1870s American West odyssey. Robert Pattinson once more flexes his character actor biceps to embody a bumbling but straight-laced weirdo, an aw-shucks romanticism complicated by what appears to be not-so-low-grade obsession. Pattinson adopts an unassuming, stick-up-butt twang of an accent which soars to grand heights when he strums along with an acoustic guitar or ruminates about “true love”.
His Samuel Alabaster, an ill-prepared pioneer, is another complicated entry to the performer’s impressive stable, another bold, weird step forward for one of the most interesting actors working toward.
Mia Wasikoska matches Pattinson’s patent oddities with a sour shot of feminine verve. She is a damsel in no distress, the Zellner Bros. shucking off outdated models of vixen in need of saving. More badass, sharp-witted and genuinely threatening than all her male counterparts put together, Wasikoska’s Penelope commands the screen as much as she does the attention of any suitor who crosses her path.
As a drunken, cowardly Parson, David Zellner can be outpaced by his co-leads, his character more a cartoonish sketch than his fully filled out counterparts, which makes his prominence in the film a bit of a disappointment.
The film suffers both a slow start and an early crescendo, reaching a deserved pitch in its center, and can never quite recover from game-changing events herein. But the Zellner’s find more wildly obtuse situations to stuff their small cast of characters into, a trope of desperate men making desperate pleas characterizing damn near every run in until Damsel threatens to become slapstick.
Damsel never quite hits the same emotional highs of the Zellner’s last, Kumiko the Treasure Hunter, but is still a stirring departure of form and strong counter-programming to both the tentpole cineplexes and the average arthouse fare. Even when the tone swings wildly and the physical humor becomes goofily telegraphed, Damsel remains a damn fun watch and one you never want to look away from. Weird, wild, and well-performed, this overcooked Western farce is sure to dazzle, frustrate, and, ultimately, preach to the choir.
CONCLUSION: The Zellner’s daffy ‘Damsel’ presents a subversion of normal Western fare, trafficking two quirky, wildly enjoyable performances from Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikoska to make for some absurdist onscreen dynamite.