If Sundance is the place to swing for the fences, Damsel chose its venue well. Festivals are the place to break molds and try something new, fly or fall, you’ll have an audience that respects the effort. While Damsel doesn’t exactly fall on its face, it should be glad of the soft landing spot.
Writer-directors (and brothers) David and Nathan Zellner set out to bring comedy into the dusty western genre with this story of a man (Robert Pattinson) traveling west to join his fiancee (Mia Wasikowska) in the mountains. The humor stems from a twist: that titular damsel isn’t the one in distress. Indeed, she spends the whole of the picture as a portrait of a woman who has had enough of this shit. (Incidentally, Damsel was my first watch at the festival, and the sentiment set the tone for nearly every picture I watched.) The idea is rather brilliant, but the execution, in this case, is quite flawed. There are laughs to be had, but there are also stretches of deafening silence. The later is largely as a result of plot choices that hamper what works best about the picture.
What is it that works best? Robert Pattinson. The Twilight star-turned indie favorite shows some unexpected comedic brilliance. Unfortunately, the scope of his performance is limited by the script and we’re left with two halves of a film that feel disconnected. That disconnect, it seems, is the chief source of the awkwardness that pervades Damsel. Similarly, Mia Wasikowska is effective but underutilized. And her character is left underdeveloped.
At nearly two hours, Damsel is a difficult sit, but should you happen upon it in passing, take in a few minutes of this curious effort. You may find that you want a lot more of Robert Pattinson in your life, albeit in a picture that makes more of his talents.