It’s hard to figure out where this whatzit Western is going exactly. David and Nathan Zellner, the brothers who wrote and directed Damsel, aren’t trying to scare the horses or rattle your nerves – but they clearly like springing surprises. Their deadpan tone makes the stately pace of, say, Dead Man director Jim Jarmusch look positively manic in comparison. This warped horse opera begins with a great scene of two men talking in the desert, one of them an old-coot preacher (Robert Forster) who ends up pulling off his clothes and running for salvation. The other is, well … never you mind.
Robert Pattinson gets right in the groove as Samuel Alabaster, a stranger in this dusty frontier town who hires Parson Henry (played by David Zellner) to marry him to his fiance Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Off they go, with a miniature horse named Butterscotch, to find her. It seems she’s been kidnapped, but despite the title, the lady is no one’s damsel in distress. And our lovelorn young man keeps singing this song about her that goes from cute to acutely disturbing, repeating the word “honeybun” to the point of madness. Pattinson, sporting a gold tooth and a menacing grin, is now truly whisper closer to obliterating his dreamy Twilight image for keeps.
Wasikowska also gets in her licks, comic and grisly. She and Pattinson were creepy to infinity and beyond as a mental patient and a Hollywood limo driver in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars. But here they really let their freak flags fly, shattering expectations as to just where this Old West love match is going. Hint: Be on the lookout for the kidnapper’s psycho brother (Nathan Zellner) who’s not making things easier.
Are we being ambiguous enough? The Zellners (Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter) keep things intellectually curious and devilishly clever, as if they’ve just watched Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona for the first time while reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot aloud to each other. Their teamwork lets the comedy chips fall where they may in between bursts of bloody action and subversive provocation.
Damsel won’t work for everyone. It’s too quirky for that. But it goes its merrily deranged way with prankish enthusiasm and a genuine sense of the absurd. Pattinson and Wasikowska fire up the game so well that you almost don’t mind when the film gets bogged down in the mid-section. Cinematographer Adam Stone (Take Shelter) lets the gorgeous Utah landscapes bleed into surreal visions geared to throw you off balance, just like the ethereal, electronic score from the Octopus Project. In a Hollywood of formulaic hack jobs, the Zellners know how to keep you guessing. Don’t knock it. It’s a gift.