Damsel is a strange film. It’s strange in ways that make it memorable, and strange it ways to its detriment. It’s especially strange as it has an arresting first half and then an almost damningly directionless second half. It takes a real turn about halfway through that is very unexpected, and as unique as it was, the film doesn’t really have much of a clue where to go afterwards. It wanders as aimlessly as I did wandering around Sundance on Saturday and Sunday looking for a truly good film to end the festival on. I did not find that truly good film, just as Damsel could not find itself in its last hour. Damsel follows Samuel (Robert Pattinson) as he journeys out west to find his fiancee Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) in the mountains.
Brothers David and Nathan Zellner wear multiple hats – directing, writing and acting – to varying degrees. There’s some intriguing visuals and quirky sensibilities they nail with help from cinematographer Adam Stone, capturing some striking visuals of the mountain landscape. There’s a dark sense of humor running through Damsel that doesn’t always hit, but does create some memorable moments. As for their acting, it’s split. David is convincing as Parson Henry, you really buy how ashamed of his life is, and he sells the more comedic moments based on how pathetic he can be. But Nathan, who appears as a character named Rufus later in the film, is really bad. It’s a struggle to get through his scenes, they should have casted someone else in the role.
Robert Pattinson is a gem here. He adopts a convincing western accent, and you can feel his self-frustration at his lack of classic, rough masculinity. There’s just something striking about his image here, him walking into town with a winchester rifle and a guitar strapped to his back while towing a miniature horse named Butterscotch. He gets to flex some comedic muscles which we don’t really ever get to see him do. There’s a part where he sings a song about Penelope he wrote called “Honeybun” and 70% of the lyrics are just him singing “honeybun” over and over and over. It’s pretty funny.
While the second half gives us a lot more of Mia Wasikowska, who is always worthwhile to watch, it just has no sense of self or direction. Once it takes the turn that it does, it loses the drive it had and the stakes. Damsel is unique and fun, but stops frustratingly short of going up another level to something more memorable.