Like Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, the first film from brother filmmaking team Nathan and David Zellner, Damsel turns on a “what if” proposition. There, they asked what would happen if a Tokyo office worker believed a VHS copy of Fargo contained clues to buried treasure. Here, they wonder what it would be like to stage a Western in which the cowboy was dainty and the damsel was gruff.
That’s not really a spoiler, but I am getting ahead of myself. Aside from a goofy barn-dance scene over the opening credits, we don’t really spend any time with the damsel, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), until the film’s second half. Instead, we follow Samuel (Robert Pattinson), a well-off traveler who has arrived at a frontier town with a miniature horse in tow. He hires a parson (David Zellner), telling him that they must rescue his fiance Penelope, who has been kidnapped. Why a parson? So that immediately after she’s freed, they can be married. The miniature horse, named Buttercup, is a wedding gift.
Damsel seems intent on tweaking (though not lampooning) every Western cliche there’s ever been. Consider Buttercup, who stands like a sad imitation among muscular mustangs. In the town’s saloon, we get the requisite shot of a spittoon, except that perched atop it is a squinting cat. And when Samuel orders a pilsner, he’s told they only have whiskey, which he delicately sips on account of his sensitive stomach.
Pattinson is a delight, dressed in all the right cowboy gear but carrying himself like a tangled marionnette. Camping under the stars while en route to Penelope, Samuel decides to regale the parson with a song that he wrote for his beloved, “My Honey Bun,” and it comically goes on forever.
When Wasikowska finally shows up as Penelope, let’s just say she’s hardly the delicate flower that Samuel has described. It, too, is a funny performance—Wasikowska has a comic forcefulness we’ve not really seen before—but it does feel a bit prescribed. By this point, it’s clear what the Zellners are doing. If you’re on their wavelength (like Kumiko, Damsel is driven by a dry sense of humor, with the studied pacing to match), you won’t mind. But if you’re not able to completely buy in, the movie’s second half might feel a bit like the long stretching out of the same, sly joke.