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by Jay Seaver

"Not necessarily cause for distress."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2018: The Zellner Brothers' "Damsel" has the odd habit of trading one memorable performance and situation for another rather than letting them build into something bigger, filling in the gaps with admittedly entertaining deadpan oddity. It makes for a movie that feels like the filmmakers came up with a bunch of Old West gags and laid them end to end, managing a constant sort of arch tone and not quite wearing it out.

It starts on that route right after the title, having a frustrated preacher (Robert Forster) sits next to another man, waiting for a stage, goes on a rant about the misery of the frontier and the lack of an audience for God's word, casting aside his vestments and walking into the dust and out of the movie. It's a neat little scene that could be yanked out without damaging the rest of the film much, if at all, but it's Robert Forster performing a sort of alchemy that turns the character's exasperation and ignorance into dark humor. The film may not need this particular moment or character, but it's worth having Forster do this scene somewhere, and this movie seems as good a choice as any.

After that, the movie proper starts, with Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) arriving in a small town to rescue his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) from Anton Cornell (Gabe Casdorph), the bandit who stole her from him. He's brought a fantastic gift and retained the town's preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner) to come with him so that they can be married just as soon as the rescue is complete. Being a timid man, Henry is none too pleased to discover that there are outlaws, including Anto's brother Rufus (Nathan Zellner), between them and their goal, and when they arrive at their destination, things naturally spin further out of control.

Some of the reversals and surprises come so suddenly and casually that a viewer may find themself not so much slack-jawed in surprise but at the very least wondering if the filmmakers are really allowed to do that. There are, it turns out, reasons why most don't; the initial rush that comes from realizing that anything can happen often gives way to a realization that the Zellners have, in practiced, reduced their options going forward and kind of have to start from scratch again with a new set of running gags and uncertain chemistry. It generally beats letting a specific joke get strung out long enough that it's not funny anymore, although there is something a little too real about how the wheel keeps turning to people just not respecting Penelope.

Still, some of those gags are good, and the best of them is probably Robert Pattinson's hilarious performance as an enthusiastic loon looking to marry his true love no matter what the obstacle. Pattinson seems to be having a great time bugging his eyes and opening his mouth wide, strolling through every scene with Samuel's stupid unearned confidence, crossing a puppy-dog desire to be liked with just the right notes of cruel entitlement. He's the most enthusiastically deranged in a film full of weirdos, balanced well by Mia Wasikowska as the capable, no-nonsense object of his affection. The Zellners give her frequent opportunities to channel Penelope's well-earned frustration into action, and she does a genuinely impressive job of letting her anger and sadness show without it becoming a sneer or simple icy intensity.

The filmmakers build something that is often striking, but even that often feels a little unsettled. There's classic-western look to the film that can sometimes seem a bit calculated - things are cluttered or empty, vibrant or faded, in a way that feels accurate but not quite natural. Penelope is quick to recognize miniature horse Butterscotch, whom the audience will immediately adore, as a kind of ridiculous thing being used to manipulate her, and while the audience might not consciously recognize that as a bit of self-referentiality, it soon leaves the filmmakers with this cute animal they don't quite know what to do with after its very existence no longer seems surreal, much the way that they keep reconfiguring their cast but never find a situation that gets the audience leaning forward once they're past what happens when Samuel arrives at Anton's cabin.

Which can be okay; a comedy can just be about making the audience laugh, and there are enough entertaining people and things throughout to keep a viewer snickering to the end. They don't always bang together to create something surprising despite their individual eccentricity, but the Zellner Brothers avoid groans, and creative but meandering is better than familiar but meandering..

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originally posted: 06/23/18 03:01:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago Critics Film Festival series, click here.

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  22-Jun-2018 (R)
  DVD: 18-Sep-2018


  DVD: 18-Sep-2018

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