Damsel (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): An offbeat western comedy with some surprise

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At first, “Damsel” looks like your typical western tale. A guy comes into the Wild West for getting back a woman he loves, and we are accordingly served with several episodic moments which remind us of how difficult it is to live in that harsh world, but then the movie surprises us as wryly turning its genre conventions upside down. Although this is still a modest genre piece on the whole, it is fun to watch how the movie deftly plays with its genre elements, and the overall result is a solid western film which deserves more attention considering the skills and efforts put into it.

Robert Pattinson, who has admirably thrown himself into various independent films since that silly movie franchise about adolescent vampire romance, plays Samuel Alabaster, a lad who has just come to some shabby village located somewhere in the Wild West. As implied from his first scene in the film, he has been searching for a young woman named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) because he loves her enough to want to marry her, and he is willing to go to anywhere for rescuing her and then proposing to her.

However, it seems he is not prepared that well for the Wild West. When he arrives at a shore near the village, Samuel comes with a miniature horse named Butterscotch just because he wants to give it to Penelope as a present. When he goes to a local bar, he is instantly ridiculed for not drinking very well, and we get a brief amusing moment when he and two other guys compare their respective Adam’s apples.

At least, he hired someone to assist him in advance, though the guy in question is not much of use to say the least. He is a drunkard preacher called Parson Henry (David Zellner, who wrote and directed the film along with his younger brother Nathan Zellner), and the opening scene of the movie, which is unfolded between him and some old guy played Robert Forster, already shows us in advance that he is actually not a preacher. When Samuel meets him for the first time, he is nearly unconscious due to his drunken state, but all Samuel needs is someone to officiate the wedding between him and Penelope, and Parson Henry reluctantly agrees to accompany Samuel after being promised that he will get more money once Samuel finds Penelope and then marries her.

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As these two guys eventually begin their journey across the wilderness outside the village, the movie throws a few offbeat touches to be appreciated besides that little horse. There is a curious moment when Samuel and Parson Henry happen to pass by a couple of Chinese people who seems to have gone through a very tough time, and we get a little laugh as a certain livestock accompanying Samuel and Parson Henry serves its purpose sooner than expected.

Now it looks like the movie takes a familiar route which has been already trodden by countless western films which came before it (I was instantly reminded of “Slow West” (2015), another offbeat western film about a young man trying to get to his true love), but then the movie takes a sudden expected plot turn. I will not go into details here not for spoiling your fun, but I can tell you instead that you will come to regard its story and characters via a very different viewpoint, and that makes the movie a lot more interesting than expected.

After that narrative point, the movie keeps things rolling toward the eventual destination of the story. There is a tense but absurd scene among three characters which ends with a rather hilarious moment of black humor, and it is followed by another funny moment involved with a supporting character played by Joseph Billingiere, who incidentally passed away not long before the movie was released in US.

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The main performers of the movie function well in their respective roles. Although I still remember how flat and mediocre his acting in the aforementioned movie franchise was, Pattinson has steadily demonstrated his maturing acting skill during last several years, and this film and Claire Denis’ “High Life” (2018) show us how much he is willing to push himself further from his old fame. Quite different from his stoic performance in “High Life”, his loose comic performance here in this film shows another hidden side of his talent, and it is surely another solid steppingstone for his increasingly fascinating acting career.

On the opposite, Mia Wasikowska, who has also driven herself further since her breakthrough turn in “Alice in Wonderland” (2010), is reliable as usual in her substantial role, and you may appreciate how the movie sharply delivers some feminist elements via her character. In case of a few other main cast members in the film, David Zellner is also fine as another crucial main character in the story, and Robert Forster’s brief appearance at the beginning of the film reminds us again that why he is still one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood.

While it may require some patience from you due to its rather slow narrative pacing, “Damsel” has some good things to engage you, and you will come to reflect a bit on the ironic aspect of its very title when it is over. Although it is less impressive than the Coen Brothers’ “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs” (2018), the Zellner Brothers, who previously gave us “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (2014), succeed as much as they intended, and I guess it will be interesting to see what may come next from these two talented filmmaker brothers.

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