To rescue his kidnapped fiancee, an earnest dandy rides into the wilderness, accompanied by a fake preacher and a miniature horse. That's the setup for Damsel, a deadpan farce filmed on the rocky Utah turf of classic John Ford Westerns. David and Nathan Zellner are on another cinematic quest.
The sibling writer-directors' 2014 Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter dispatched a young Japanese woman to the domain of a better-known pair of movie-making brothers, the Coens. After mistaking Fargo for a true story, she sought that movie's fictional loot. The protagonist of Damsel is similarly deluded, but not as central to the story as the heroine of the Zellners' previous lark. The filmmakers have less patience for prissy Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) than they did for clueless Kumiko.
The first of the principal characters to be introduced is so-called Parson Henry. (He's played by David Zellner, whose Kumiko cop was similarly slow-witted.) In a droll prologue, Henry is ceded a battered Bible and preacher clothes by a fed-up frontier clergyman (Robert Forster) who promptly vanishes.
A refugee from Baltimore, Henry is more interested in cadging drinks than saving souls. Samuel enlists him for the mission to free Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), planning that the preacher will marry the couple after the heroic deed is accomplished.
The miniature horse, named Butterscotch, is a wedding present for Penelope. Samuel thinks she wants one, but he's wrong about that — and a whole lot more.
In the movie's second act, the damsel becomes the central character, while Henry remains the sidekick. Also featured are two frontiersmen (one played by the other Zellner brother), a grave but cynical Native American (the late Joseph Billingiere, in his final role), and a wolf that appears as tame as Butterscotch. The principal danger in this Wild West is human stupidity.
While the locations are authentic, everything else in Damsel is, intentionally, a little off. The songs, which include a yodeling showcase and a sweet-toothed ode to Penelope warbled by Samuel, are ridiculous. The dialogue is studded with contemporary jargon, some of it seemingly lifted from self-help books. This is the sort of movie where a 19th-century vigilante explains that he's keeping "a low profile."
For Pattinson, Damsel isn't an attempt to be low-profile. Rather, he means to obliterate his profile, happy to play the fool if that will dispel his tortured Twilight persona. The actor's high-pitched Samuel is a less flamboyant performance than the blustering thug he played in Good Time, but it further demonstrates his versatility and lack of vanity.
Wasikowska is no less impressive, although in a very different mode. She plays the one person in the movie who ought to be taken seriously — a thankless role in a comedy. That Penelope can take care of herself is not quite enough to make the film, as some have termed it, a "feminist Western."
Damsel goes for rueful smiles, not uproarious laughs. Its most cartoonish moment is one that aims to mock-and-awe with violence, full-frontal nudity, and another movie taboo. Crucially, the Zellners take this and other developments very slowly, giving the movie the pace of a meditation rather than a burlesque.
Even sympathetic viewers may weary of scenes that routinely last a few breaths too long, or asides that stall more than they amuse. Likable as Damsel is, there's just not much to it, and the Zellners don't improve their modest scenario by stretching it so thin.