By now, the Robert Pattinson Renaissance is over. He has been fully transformed- long live the Robert Pattinson Reign. Though we may never get used to seeing the former Vampire heartthrob of teens everywhere playing respectable, lauded film roles, that hasn’t stopped him from continuing to take on interesting projects that could all count as career suicide. A violent, compulsively sexual billionare playboy in the impenetrable, Kafka-esque Cosmopolis. A mentally delayed, sad sack sidekick in The Rover. A scummy, creepy, bleach blonde criminal in Good Time. Yet no role so effectively assassinates the Robert Pattinson of old as his newest- as the chivalrous, courting pioneer Samuel Alabaster in the Zellner Brothers’ Damsel.
Set in 1870, Samuel is a young, wealthy man who arrives in a western town, ominously, much like the man with no name beforehand. Yet where Eastwood had nothing much more than a poncho and a toothpick, Alabaster comes with more extravagances- a guitar and a miniature horse named Butterscotch. He has arrived to pick up Parson Henry (played by David Zellner, one of the directors), and is bringing him along to marry Samuel to his love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who is living off the land a day or two’s ride outside of town.
It doesn’t take an astute watcher of movies to know that something seems off about Samuel’s plan. From a delightful opening scene featuring Robert Forster, we already know that Parson Henry is not quite who he seems- so it is no leap in logic to think that Samuel may be not who he appears to be, either. He proceeds on his mission with the conviction of a white guy who thinks he is God’s Perfect Man. But the thing is, he is so mediocre at everything. He can’t down more than a sip of whiskey. He can’t take his guitar off his back without a struggle. He can’t write lyrics without every other word being “Buttercup.”
I wasn’t in the pitch meeting for Damsel, but I imagine it went something like this. “What about The Searchers, but the John Wayne character is a “nice guy” Incel type?” When they finally find Penelope, she’s different than we were led to believe- and the rest of the film is about parsing out the expectations vs. the reality. It’s nothing less than a total deconstruction of chivalry and toxic masculinity. The fact that they cast Robert Pattinson to be the vessel for such a mission- is genuinely inspired.
The career of the Zellners thus far shows a clear debt to the Coen Brothers. Hell, their last film, Kumiko The Treasure Hunter, was about a young Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi) who thought the money that Carl Showalter buried in Fargo was real. In tone, the dry humor, unimaginable stupidity, the interspersed bits of shocking violence, and old testament human folly, Damsel feels like a mashup of True Grit, Burn After Reading, and O Brother Where Art Thou? They may be playing in a certain sandbox, but it’s a glorious little sandbox to be playing in.
Nevertheless, they bring their own themes to play. Damsel continues the ideas they explored in Kumiko- the innate desire to escape our troubles through fantasy, and how a foolish hope for an extreme reinvention, a “clean slate”, could likely end with you face down in a ditch somewhere. It’s better to take the good parts of the troubled past, like a tiny miniature horse named Butterscotch, and continue on your merry way.
Damsel opens in Philly theaters today.