Samuel (Robert Pattinson) is a sincere romantic, but he may also be delirious in what he perceives is real and what may exist only in his head. Over the course of David and Nathan Zellner's zany and absurd Damsel, we get to find out which side of the mental spectrum our reluctant protagonist falls on. That is, if you manage to stay awake through the nearly two hour running time.
The optimistic pioneer is on a quest to get reacquainted with the love of his life and a woman he seems hellbent on marrying, the beautiful Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Along with a drunk preacher (David Zellner, pulling double duty), Samuel sets out on a mission to rescue his soon-to-be bride, who seems to have been kidnapped. As is the case with any western, when a group treks across the deserted lands that are called the wild west for a reason, things go wrong and hardship ensues.
You'll spend the first hour of this movie wondering what the intent of the Zellner Brothers have with this movie, and the second hour you'll deliberate whether or not that was a wise choice to go there. It isn't like there's a lot going on in this movie, but it's figuring out whether drama or comedy is the headliner here is the problem. The film never seems confident enough to stand on one title, and even when a few scenes of extreme violence carry a wicked sense of parody, you'll struggle with the idea of intent.
If you want to create laughs or mock the modern western, just lean into it. Damsel seems like a half-hearted attempt to be funny or filmmakers trying really hard to create something different. Their film has a slow pulse and lacks energy to be a dark comedy, but doesn't buy into the drama factor enough to switch gears.
When the movie pulls a 360 shift midway through the film, you'll be confused, bewildered, but carry on just to see which character makes it and which doesn't. In the end, the movie is something different than the original intent promised, and that has a negative effect on the viewer.
The cast isn't bad, but also doesn't leave much of a dent. Pattinson has a knack for playing wandering minds, but even he has trouble helping Samuel find grounding. Wasikowska fares well in her scenes, but doesn't get much to do with the material except look confused and out of it. Zellner looks more like a filmmaker who decided to save himself some money for a role than an actual actor who gave a performance. There's just not much there.
If the idea was to create a warped tour through the 1870 American frontier, then the Zellner Brothers succeeded. The problem is they didn't create a tour worth watching, because you don't care for the characters and the pacing is deliberately slow and will make one restless. They should have just made a silent movie. It would have worked better.
As it is, Damsel never finds its footing due to a mixed bag of intention. Overly ambitious or just simply asleep at the wheel, there isn't much going on here. By the end, you'll be as lonely as the preacher sipping whiskey at a bar and staring longingly at a locket.