When I pitched Damsel to Dustin, I don’t think I mentioned cast members Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, or that the film is from brothers David and Nathan Zellner, who previously collaborated on the very good, charmingly strange Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. I’m pretty sure I just mentioned the words “mini horse,” and Dustin remembered that I wrote this essay about Lean on Pete and The Rider, and he very generously said something along the lines of, “Of course you can write about this movie! You’re on the horse beat!”
So here I am, on the horse beat, to tell you that Damsel is incredibly singular, a beautifully shot, delightfully weird, and feminist as hell film that goes against all expectations. Pattinson works a lilting American accent as a spoiled dandy convinced of his own heroism; Wasikowska continues her streak of no-nonsense, self-sufficient female protagonists, upending the film’s narrative as soon as she properly enters it; and yes, there’s a mini-horse named Butterscotch, who adds a bit of whimsy to a film that is honestly gorgeous to look at and was shot mostly on location in Utah, with wide-open landscapes, a saturated color palette, and a sort of authentic Americanness. And when Damsel starts veering off course, subverting what you would assume from a movie that looks like this, is when the Zellner Bros. deliver farcical magic.
Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson) is the ideal hero: He’s handsome, he’s wealthy, he’s a pioneer with manners. He’s not a cowboy—he doesn’t handle himself too well with a gun—but when the citizens of a frontier town invite him to participate in a “gang-bang social” (“Good way to meet folks,” helpfully says a man who finishes Samuel’s whiskey shot when he can’t), he declines because he is committed to another: Penelope (Wasikowska), a sweetheart from years before, whose portrait he carries in a locket with him. They danced together once, capturing Samuel’s heart, and he’s traveling back to her to propose marriage.
Needing someone to marry them, Samuel enlists officiant Parson Henry (David Zellner, pulling double duty as a co-director and actor) to come along as they traipse through the country to Penelope. And they’re joined by Butterscotch the mini-horse, Samuel’s wedding gift for Penelope, a “living conversation piece.”
But as they travel together, Parson Henry realizes that Samuel is a bit strange—exemplified by a song he writes for Penelope that is just the words “My honeybun” and “I love you” over and over again, for several long, painful minutes. He describes his “bride to be” as “the most precious thing in the whole world, just like a flower,” but he has no personal stories to share about her, no real memories or anecdotes. Maybe he’s private, or maybe he just sees Parson Henry as hired help and not worthy of real conversation, or … maybe there’s something else going on, but what?
Pattinson is different here from anything else I’ve seen him in before; most of his post-Twilight pattern has been dark shit like Cosmopolis and Good Time (which I loathed), but he’s looser here, working weird character tics like jutted-forward teeth and a lilting sort of speaking style. His whole affect makes clear that Samuel is a person who most of society would find charming and genteel, but whose wealth and demeanor hide an inner clueless and deep fear of embarrassment. Two scenes encapsulate this: When someone asks “Is you a pussy?” and he responds “My stomach is, from time to time,” and later on, in a dialogue-less scene, when he practices dancing and bowing to a tree stump that is meant to be Penelope and becomes angry at his perceived failures. Remember Prince Humperdinck of The Princess Bride, and how he thought being a nice guy made him worthy of possessing Robin Wright’s Buttercup? Swap a fairy-tale setting for a Western one, and that’s basically Pattinson’s Samuel Alabaster.
Wasikowska, meanwhile, is less surprising in her performance because she’s been building a resume of unapologetically individualistic female characters who don’t need men for years now, from Lawless to Stoker to Tracks, and even her turn as Alice in the terrible Johnny Depp Disney versions of Lewis Carroll’s stories. But her steadiness is what the film needs, particularly in a second half that hammers home the film’s feminist agenda: that men view romance as a means to obtaining property, and that they also attempt to hide their own weakness with a reliance on female responsibility. Wasikowska’s take-no-bullshit performance is a perfect conduit for that messaging, and the final scene is an unforgettable one for how emphatically it approves of her fierceness.
Damsel slightly falters toward the end with a subplot involving a Native American character whose actions are stereotypically villainous, but for the most part, it’s an amusingly weird mixture of off-kilter humor and vulgarity, startling bursts of violence, stunning cinematography, and well-realized characters. A recommendation from me to you, on the horse beat.