Damsel starts with two men at a crossroads in the desert: one waiting for a stagecoach going west, one waiting for a stagecoach going east. This situates the movie, right from the beginning, in mythic territory. The preacher going west explains he wants to start a new life, while the man going east tells him that there’s no such thing as a fresh start. This prologue frames the themes of the movie as a whole — that no matter where you go, things will probably end up exactly the same. The same ethos extends to the wider movie; no matter where it goes, things remain at the same boring, painfully unfunny pace. The Zellner Brother’s latest film is an epic misfire.
Cut forward to the hopeless Samuel (Robert Pattinson), who has enlisted the man from the prologue (David Zellner) — now an alcoholic preacher — to be the sidekick for his quest. The mission: to find his kidnapped fiancé and marry her on the spot. So far so normal, even if Samuel himself admits that he isn’t your traditional gunslinger. For one thing, he doesn’t even like drinking whisky. The fallen preacher is a more traditional Western character, grappling with his own failed outlook on life, and going along for the ride because he has nothing else to lose. Halfway through the film cleaves neatly in two, questioning everything that has come before. Its a clever trick, as it is innately linked to the theme of the movie, which is the way certain men are prone to thinking that they are always the heroes of their own stories. This is made even more interesting considering that it’s Robert Pattinson himself playing the role, considering his fame for playing vampire sweetheart Edward Cullen. Sadly for Damsel, these ideas aren’t executed with any finesse or talent at all.
Like Ridiculous Six (but even less funny), Damsel tries to revise the Western through a comic lens, in the process make the viewer question commonly held beliefs. This is hardly new — as long as the genre has been around people have been questioning it and adapting it to their own ends. Better examples include Back To The Future III and Blazing Saddles, films that didn’t try so hard to land every single joke. When Damsel isn’t aiming for comedy, its more serious scenes reflect an unearned laziness on behalf of the filmmakers.
That’s a shame, because the film does have some interesting ideas, mainly about the nature of masculinity, and how it can be based in fantasy. In addition, the idea of switching up the narrative halfway through fits in neatly with this subversion. Its heart is in the right place, and its strong feminist credentials remain intact. Nevertheless, this isn’t explored in any meaningful way. For one thing, the big twist that occurs halfway through can be seen from a mile away, somewhat negating its impact. In addition, further switch-ups in the narrative are merely repetitions of the same theme. In the right hands, it could’ve been hilarious; here it is exasperating.
Robert Pattinson is one of the most interesting actors working right now. The former Twilight star had his best ever role last year with the mesmerising Good Time. He’s currently jumping into diverse parts with glee, and its refreshing to see him attempt a comedy. However, this type of humour, aiming for the lowest denominator possible, does him no favours. Likewise, Mia Wasikowska is also wasted here, mostly reacting to men’s stupidity instead of honing her own comic chops. With the exception of the legendary Robert Forster, who starts the film as the man going east, the supporting cast is your usual generic team of Western clichés.
If Damsel was just shy of 80 minutes, it could’ve been a semi-enjoyable preamble through the old territory of the west. Coming in under just two hours, however, the result is an undeniable slog. It’s remarkable that it ended up in the Competition slate at Berlinale and wasn’t bought up by Netflix in seeking to capitalise on Robert Pattinson’s fame. By the end, the real damsels in distress are the audience.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.