There’s a ton of things to say about Damsel, but the less you know the better. Toplined by Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, Damsel is a Western of the highest order. Skip reviews and just see this movie, but if you must read a bit more, here’s some non-spoiler stuff . . .
Directed and written by Nathan and David Zellner, Damsel centers on Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson, sporting what seems to be a gold tooth), a wealthy pioneer who’s crossed an ocean to find and get hitched to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), the apparent love of his life. David Zellner does admirable double duty as Parson Henry, a man of the cloth who’s hired by Samuel to marry the lovebirds. Robert Forster, who’s simply credited as the “old preacher,” is the de facto mentor of Parson Henry. The pair anchor a memorable, elongated opening sequence which rivals the opening strains of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West.
Due to a past tragedy, Parson Henry is looking for a fresh start, and journeying out West with Samuel may give him a sense of purpose. The Zellner Brothers take their sweet time unpacking Damsel’s story, and if you’re needing a movie filled with quick cutting and visual flashiness, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Though the trailer suggests an oddball and humorous tone (have you seen the Samuel’s miniature horse?), Damsel thankfully doesn’t hang its hat on humor. The heart and soul of the story lies in the characters’ respective interior world and motivations, and this meditative, heartbreaking, and ultimately inspired trek packs quite a knockout punch.
The pugilist delivering that savage uppercut is Wasikowska, who commands the frame the second she steps into frame. Penelope is not a one-dimensional love interest who serves as a vessel for Samuel’s dreams of happiness. She’s a living and breathing person, and easily the bravest individual we witness on this perilous frontier. Films such as Tracks, Stoker, and Jane Eyre have displayed Wasikowska’s unyielding strength, but with Damsel she’s a sheer force of nature.
Pattinson continues his storied run at simply changing the game when it comes to lead actors. Instead of carving out a studio driven career that’s driven by looks and marketability, Pattinson has gone an entirely different route and succeeded in the process (last year’s Good Time and The Rover are among his most acclaimed efforts). He’s in topnotch form once again with Damsel, and he infuses much needed humanity as the film’s eccentric protagonist.
There is a plethora of plot detail that’s doled out in reviews, and even if you don’t mind spoilers, Damsel works best as an organic, lived in experience. Watching the story gradually unfold is a sight to behold, and if you have any idea where the story is going, you’ll probably be wrong. The narrative consistently folds onto itself, creating another layer of possibilities and repercussions, and though many of those questions will be answered in the evocative final moment, there is still much road to cover.
Damsel’s narrative complexities and execution should grow richer in time and with repeated viewings. A big part of the feature deals with how we communicate with each other and are able to express (and initiate) our own ambitions. Are we stuck in a state of dreaming or do we push forward to a new day, even if the sun doesn’t shine? Penelope may, to some, be just a “damsel,” but those folks are living in a one horse town. Damsel sees beyond those horizons, realizing that “Go West Young, Man,” especially in Penelope’s eyes, simply doesn’t apply. There’s a world across those waters, and the Zellner Brothers are more than willing to take us there.
****Damsel hits select theaters June 22.
Rating: 5 out of 5
Below is our June episode of CinemAddicts, a movie podcast I co-host with Anderson Cowan: