“Damsel” is a Western that never wants to let you forget it's poking fun at the genre. It's a playful jab in the ribs that becomes grating pretty fast, and then you realize it's not ready to let up. It's a deadpan comedy of the most aggravating kind: the kind that can't help making funny faces at every turn. I kept wanting to slap some sense into it.
Which is a shame, mostly for two reasons: Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. Ever see a movie where you're digging the central performances but keep wishing you could tell the guys calling the shot to quit horsing around? Welcome to the skewed, freaky-deaky world of David Zellner and Nathan Zellner, moviemaking siblings who've never met a strange tic or eccentric flourish they haven't liked. Their gift for creating a vivid sense of time and place is undercut by their tendency to overdose on their penchant for weirdness.
They set the tone from the get-go, as they look in on a disillusioned preacher, played by Robert Forster at his most grizzled, who's lamenting his failure at bringing the good word to the savages on the wild frontier circa 1870. The scene begins as a casual exchange between the man of God and a younger man as they wait for a stagecoach. It ends with Forster stripping to his pajamas and running off into a barren landscape. How precious.
But this isn't the story the Zellners want to tell. Enter Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson), who arrives at a dusty remote town, miniature horse in tow, to find Parson Henry (David Zellner), the man he hired to officiate his wedding to Penelope (Wasikowska). Only Penelope is nowhere in sight, and Samuel, all aw shucks and golly gee willikers meekness, keeps springing new information on the dumbfounded Henry. Off they go into the wilderness, as the clergyman (and the viewer) scrambles to put the pieces together as to what is happening.
That uncertainty, as well as cinematographer Adam Steve's crisp vistas, keep us going, like a mule reaching out for that out-of-reach carrot, because, well, the movie appears to be taking us somewhere new. Who is this dandy with both a shotgun and guitar strapped to his back, and does he have a clue as to how to survive in this increasingly hostile environment?
To his dismay, it dawns on Henry that they two of them might be heading to a violent encounter with men who, if Samuel is to be believed, have taken Penelope against her will. It all seems to be heading for a showdown, which is when the Zellners turn the plot on its head, and in so doing, confirm viewers' suspicions that there was something fishy about the whole expedition.
Penelope makes her grand entrance as “Damsel” ambles amiably toward the halfway point, Weapons are drawn from the unlikeliest gunmen, harsh words are exchanged, and the Zellners appear to take the characters in a different direction. But that's when it becomes clear that, from a narrative point of view, they've painted themselves into a corner. With about an hour of screen time left to go.
Sure, it's amusing to see Pattinson cast against type as a lovestruck doofus. He's a putz, but a putz with a pure heart (and deep pockets). He's especially droll when he plays a cringe-inducing love song he's been working on, or earlier in the film, when he's asked to compare Adam's apples with other men in a bar. “How big is yours?” a curious patron asks a bewildered Samuel. Well, isn't that darling?
But like just about everything else in “Damsel,” even the ostensibly genial aspects wear thin pretty fast. Once blood has been shed, the Zellners appear to be spinning their wheels without being able to move the story forward, leaving the characters bickering at each other in rudderless fashion. Wasikowska is the “straight man” here, her no-nonsense moxie a welcome antidote to the out-of-control silliness, even if her character feels a tad too contemporary when compared with the rest of the period-embracing gargoyles on display. Her crack timing and deadpan delivery suggest the movie that could have been if the Zellners had seen fit to observe a little restraint.
There's a dewy-eyed freshness to parts of “Damsel” that recall Westerns from the 1970s, only with tongue placed more firmly in cheek. With its spiffy production values and game cast, the film has a lot going for it. (Pattinson and Wasikowska, last seen together in David Cronenberg's “Maps to the Stars,” mesh well together, especially when they're at odds, an understatement in this case.) But despite the commitment on both sides of the camera, the Zellners have cooked up a uniquely unsatisfying oater that's been out in the sun too long. As slight as it is obnoxious, this well-intentioned trifle ends up whittling down to nothing, until all we're left with are pretty pictures and the broken tatters of our long-exhausted patience.
“Damsel” is now showing at Regal South Beach Stadium 18.