With Maps to the Stars, Lost City of Z, and Good Time in recent years, Robert Pattinson has been on a rare run of form, picking fascinating project after fascinating project and working with some of the most distinctive directors around. To this list of successes, we can happily add Damsel, a smart, mordant Western that plays like a cross between Slow West and Burn After Reading and is just as fun, if not quite as breathtakingly brilliant, as that sounds. As a crooning dandy in the Old West, Pattinson proves yet again that he’s impossible to typecast and that he’s easily one of the most exciting actors of his generation.
This crooning dandy is Samuel Alabaster, a wealthy young man searching the wilderness for his lost true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). As travelling companions, he’s enlisted fake preacher Henry (David Zellner, also one half of Damsel’s writing/directing duo) and an incredibly affectionate pony called Butterscotch. It’s a very funny journey through the Old West, absurdist and dark, and it never goes quite the way you expect it to. Penelope’s introduction, in particular, throws the story for a loop that is surprising and utterly ingenious, and the Zellner Brothers’s script delights in subverting the genre’s norms – suffice it to say that Penelope is hardly the damsel the title suggests.
It’s another show-stopping performance from Pattinson, the former Twilight heartthrob trading in the deep scumminess of Good Time’s Connie for a clumsy, dorky persona as Samuel. He’s absolutely hilarious, both in his line delivery and physicality, and the scene in which he composes his song for Penelope is riotously funny. It’s a mediocre ditty that becomes simply awful as it goes on and on, every return to its simple chorus eliciting an exponentially bigger laugh. Pattinson hasn’t been given a chance to test his comic chops like this before, but he should be headlining a Lord/Miller comedy as soon as possible.
A mid-film turn gives him even more to play with, hinting at far darker and more dangerous depths to his character, a modern day internet ‘Nice Guy’ flung back to the 1870s Pacific Northwest. Pattinson owns the film, which is both its greatest strength and sort of a weakness – the moments he’s not on screen are noticeably less compelling. That’s not to say that Wasikowska and Zellner aren’t good in their roles, but they lack the manic energy that Pattinson uses to drive the film forward so engagingly.
Zellner’s writing and directing mix in with his hangdog performance to create an effective sense of bathos and his frequent yelps of pain at various humiliating injuries are both laughable and wince-inducing. Wasikowska brings a decidedly modern feminist edge to her character. Penelope is not just a ‘Strong Female Character’, but someone who is actively and frustratedly fighting for her own agency at every turn, be it in conversation or action. She also shares a gripping dynamic with Pattinson – this is their second film together after Maps to the Stars and it’s no wonder that they will reunite yet again next year for Antonio Campos’s incredible-sounding The Devil All the Time.
Like in any good comedy western, death arrives embarrassingly, and the Zellners wring a huge number of laughs from these scenes, whether it’s someone getting hanged for necrophilic crimes or a wounded moron stumbling closer and closer to a huge cache of dynamite. Though we are encouraged to laugh at the misfortune of these folks, the humour never tips into outright cruel territory, everyone earning their fate. Damsel is a silly, hugely enjoyable caper with a bloody streak and a rare opportunity to see a world-famous movie star play a clumsy nerd with complete sincerity – seek it out.