There’s tonal dissonance, and then there’s Damsel. This quasi-parodic pseudo-Western from the Zellner brothers (Kumiko the Treasure Hunter) can’t seem to decide if it’s a quirky farce, a surprisingly violent feminist allegory or a surrealist love story. Instead, it plays like a bargain-basement Coen brothers by way of Wes Anderson, embodying all the worst potentialities of that assessment. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not nearly as cute as it thinks it is.
Don’t get me wrong, for the first 15 minutes of the film I was transfixed. Robert Forster pops up for a brief cameo as a grizzled preacher waiting on a stagecoach, who confides in a stranger (David Zellner) looking for a new start in the Western wilderness that the violent absurdity of the frontier has finally beaten him. After handing over to the stranger his priestly vestments and a tattered Bible, the pages of which have been repurposed as rolling papers and toilet tissue, the preacher wanders off toward an uncertain fate over the horizon. It’s an excellent scene, and the magic hour vistas of Monument Valley that followed set my expectations high.
That was my first mistake when it comes to Damsel — believing that it would, or could, live up to such prodigious potential. My next mistake was believing that the Zellners had a game plan to support their strong start. The narrative descends into the lowest depths of bad indie quirk comedy as Robert Pattinson’s Samuel sets out on a quest to reunite with his lost love Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), a Shetland pony in tow. He enlists the newly christened preacher to officiate the ceremony, only to reveal that his role might actually involve more gunplay than sermonizing, since Penelope has apparently been kidnapped by a pair of ne’er-do-wells — a fact he neglected to mention.
It’s here that the Zellners fully lose their way, as Damsel’s second-act climax involves a protagonist bait-and-switch that is thoroughly unsupported by the film’s prior narrative and character development. Once we meet Penelope and the story shifts to her viewpoint, the Zellners finally get around to making their tenuous point about flawed masculinity and feminine empowerment, but the message comes across as too little, too late. Even the film’s most notable running gag, a series of unwanted marriage proposals hurled at Penelope from every man in sight, falls flat by dint of insufficient setup.
If Damsel fails to surmount its lofty goals, it’s not for lack of trying — it’s for lack of adequate scripting. The Zellners do have a valid point about the objectification of women at the hands of insecure, often infantile men, and they may have had the stylistic chops to get that point across had they structured their script more carefully. If their goal was to create a revisionist take on the problematic misogyny of films like The Searchers, they neglected to take into account the fact that Robert Pattinson is no John Wayne, and they sure as hell aren’t anywhere near John Ford’s level. Those in the market for quirkiness for its own sake may be sated, but all others will leave Damsel at least mildly distressed.