David and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel is built on a proposition that’s nothing if not intriguing: What first appears to be a male-centric plotline switches gears at the halfway point, suggesting Psycho’s mid-film rupture filtered through a feminist scrim. The ambling, observational humor of the film’s early passages is pleasant enough, with the Zellner brothers working some meta humor into their take on the western, where adult men behave like giant children and everything is—at least compared to traditional Hollywood depictions of the Old West—relentlessly grimy. The theme of on-the-spot reinvention of the self, tying backward to classic revisionist westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, is unmissable.
Damsel’s prologue scene, set somewhere in a red rock canyon, sees two men, a despondent missionary (Robert Forster) and a vagrant named Henry (David Zellner), waiting for a train and the former jettisoning his cassock for long johns and running off into the desert. Later, a well-heeled wanderer, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), rides into a small frontier town aboard a miniature pony, Butterscotch, looking for a pastor to officiate his wedding. Henry, now playing the part of the parson by wearing the missionary’s cassock, takes Samuel up on his offer, and the two men set off on a murky journey after Samuel’s true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). After a brief flashback, Penelope appears in the film’s first half only as a musty photograph that Samuel keeps in a locket—a symbol of the narrative of his love for her that he’s sold to himself and is now committed to.
Pattinson plays Samuel with off-kilter earnestness, while the alcoholic Henry serves as a stand in for the audience, inevitably befuddled at where exactly his traveling companion is leading him. And their quest takes a darker turn when Samuel confesses that he’s actually contracted Henry as backup on a rescue mission: Admitting he’s no gunslinger, Samuel claims that Penelope’s been kidnapped—by ruffian brothers Anton (Gabe Casdorph) and Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner)—and that he’s taken it upon himself to retrieve her. Henry, a penniless widower who introduces himself early in the film as “needing a fresh start,” has little choice but to tag along with Samuel.
Theirs is a mission that culminates—spoilers herein—with a man being shot in the head while peeing outside, thus hemorrhaging piss from one “head” and blood from the other. This tragic-absurdist image proves to be Damsel’s high point, and as the story refocuses on Penelope, it’s apparent that the Zellners have constructed her as a thin cipher for a certain wokeness that, as of the film’s production, handily anticipated #MeToo. Even Rufus tries to make a move on her, to which she responds that she “doesn’t need saving”—a hyperliteralization coming from a film entitled Damsel.
Played for awkward laughs, these sequences render both story and theme into a lecture pointed directly at viewers, but the script doesn’t take Penelope seriously enough to really push the narrative forward. It’s well established by now that the mythic Old West was always a trope written and controlled by men, and that there’s really no bottom to which men won’t stoop when women are a scarce quantity. In its mad rush toward performative allyship, the film exhausts every possible means of conveying those bombshells, so shrill that the only option left unexplored is blaring on-screen text a la Godard. While the production design, star caliber, and slick filmmaking suggest a work of serious, measured cinema, Damsel ends up feeling like a festival-land breakout comedy short dragged out for two interminable hours. What’s left is, indeed, the suspicion of having been taken for a ride.