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Movie review: Quirky Sundance Western 'Damsel' flips conventions but falls flat at the end

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson appear in “Damsel,” by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson appear in “Damsel,” by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Adam Stone, Sundance Institute

"DAMSEL" — 2½ stars — Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner; not rated, probable R for brief graphic male nudity and intermittent violence and profanity; Sundance Film Festival

Filmed in Utah, “Damsel” is a beautiful and quirky comic Western that wants to turn the genre on its head, but once those conventions are flipped, the film just doesn’t have much else to say.

Featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the movie opens with an enigmatic encounter that, like many other scenes in “Damsel,” greatly benefits from a gorgeous southern Utah setting, where two men are at a remote outpost waiting for a stagecoach.

One is a preacher (Robert Forster), headed home after a failed attempt to bring the word of God to the rough-and-tumble Old West. The other, Henry (David Zellner, who co-wrote and directed the film with his brother Nathan), is on his way to the West Coast, still mourning the death of his young wife and looking for a new start in life.

After some ponderous conversation, the preacher gets tired of waiting for the stagecoach, strips down to his long johns and marches off into the desert, leaving his belongings at Henry’s feet.

Cue the opening titles.

This odd opening sets the tone for the strangeness to come. We meet a young man named Samuel (Robert Pattinson), who claims that his wife-to-be Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) has been kidnapped by a local named Anton Cornell (Gabe Casdorph) and his brother Rufus (Zellner’s brother Nathan). He sets out to rescue Penelope, accompanied by a miniature horse named Butterscotch and Henry, who has apparently been masquerading as a preacher since his encounter in the film’s opening scene.

Henry doesn’t know about the kidnapping — he thinks he’s only coming along to marry the happy couple — and when Samuel finally clues him in on his plan, things steadily go from bad, to worse, to ridiculous, to tragic.

It’s a little difficult to go further without exposing the film’s primary plot twist, but suffice to say, Penelope isn’t exactly a damsel in distress, and in the aftermath of her encounter with Samuel, the film’s characters and its audience are both tossed into the S.S. Now What? with no obvious destination in sight.

On the plus side, “Damsel” has a dry quirkiness that colors every character in the film aside from Penelope — in other words, all the male characters — in a stark shade of goofy. The Zellner brothers also directed the recent “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” but at times, “Damsel” smacks of another recent Sundance entry: 2016’s “Swiss Army Man.”

The film also just looks gorgeous. In addition to the exotic Goblin Valley opener, we spend time on what appears to be the rocky Oregon coast before zeroing in on the forests of aspens around Park City for the bulk of the film.

Unfortunately, the stunning vistas and oddball sense of humor aren’t quite enough to save “Damsel” from running out of gas on the way to its finish line. The setup is great, but the finish just feels too empty.

“Damsel” is not rated, but would likely draw an R rating for some intermittent violence and profanity, as well as brief graphic male nudity (played for comic purposes); running time: 113 minutes.