Film Review: Not Every ‘Damsel’ Needs to Be Rescued

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A pioneer, a preacher, and a miniature horse cross the plains.

That isn’t the start of a joke. Or maybe it is. Who can be quite sure what’s meant to be funny and what just makes you laugh in “Damsel,” a new film from the Zellner Brothers, David, and Nathan.

Robert Pattinson stars as a wealthy man named Samuel who pays a preacher a lot of money to accompany him in search of his missing fiancée. Mia Wasikowska is Penelope, the would-be bride, although we’ll meet her later. The Zellners, who wrote and directed “Damsel,” also like to perform in their films. Elder brother David Zellner accompanies Samuel as Parson Henry.

And though the trailer and poster might have you believe, this story doesn’t belong to Samuel, nor to Penelope. This tale begins and ends with the Parson, following him along on this journey. He isn’t just helping a rich man find the love of his life. He is also searching for his own lost faith.

Perhaps that makes it sound like a dramatic and inspirational tale. And to some, it might even be. But this film, set in the Oregon of the 1870s, is more of a comedy/western/drama with a healthy dose of farce thrown in for good measure.

The blend of genres opens up the film to infinite possibilities. The comedy is often slightly out of focus. Sometimes that works well, but other times it gets a bit wearing. This is the type of film where you’re not always quite sure if you’re supposed to be laughing. The humor is sometimes reminiscent of—though far more subtle than—some of the work of Jared Hess. More than once, “Napoleon Dynamite” sprang to mind as I wasn’t quite sure if I’d heard a line right and then quickly realized that I had indeed. But then the humor gives way to dramatic moments. Sometimes the tonal shifts are oddly off-putting. Other times, they hit just right.

Robert Pattinson gives one of his most decidedly anti-Edward Cullen performances to date. He’s uncomfortably quirky, but earnest in a way that you can’t help rooting for him. His Samuel loves Penelope so much that he would traverse the plains with a rare miniature horse in order to rescue her. Pattinson is funny and sincere. His accent is odd but believable. The further he moves away from his “Twilight” days, the more apparent it is that he is an actor of considerable talent.

We don’t meet up with Mia Wasikowska’s Penelope until near the middle of the film. Some of her best-known roles were in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland” films and Cary Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre,” where she played normally boisterous characters as timid and understated. With those traits in mind, we watch Samuel wax poetic about his love, wondering how she could possibly live up to the image he conjures. But the Penelope we find is every bit the bold and tenacious woman Samuel describes, and Wasikowska is thoroughly enjoyable and engaging to watch.

David Zellner is fine as Parson Henry. He spends much of his time as a surrogate for the audience, with front row seats to watch a spectacle as it unfolds. It doesn’t come across as a particularly challenging or unique role. He is a drunk preacher without a flock who is ready to give up. He lost his wife in childbirth long before and the lonely years have caught up with him. But the Zellners don’t give him much opportunity to explore those aspects of the character. He spends much of the film simply being along for the ride, despite his position throughout the story.

Nathan Zellner also has a smaller role, as does Robert Forster. Neither of them gets substantial places in the story, but they are both effective in their moments.

The Zellners’ script is sometimes hard to follow and full of head-scratching absurdity. Around the halfway point, the already languid pace slows, eliciting several moments of wondering how many stories could possibly remain. But that isn’t to say that it’s a bad film, or even that it is poorly executed. What it lacks in pacing or clarity is forgivable because it is something different. Nothing about “Damsel” is offensive or bad. Frequently, it is quite good, and its endeavor to offer something new is the biggest reason to celebrate.

That and, well, the horse is really adorable.

GRADE: (★★★)

“Damsel” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and is in theaters this weekend.