Pitiful men pin their hopes on delusions of romance in David and Nathan Zellner’s clever and melancholy western “Damsel,” an offbeat odyssey about the foolhardiness of believing in the “damsel in distress.”
The Zellner brothers’ last film, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” was based on an urban legend about a Japanese woman who, believing the Coen brothers’ “Fargo” to be a true story, travels to wintery North Dakota to find the buried case of cash left by Steve Buscemi’s character.
That movie, patiently idiosyncratic, found some poignancy in an absurd, ambling tale about fatally misguided misconceptions, and much is the same in the offbeat “Damsel.” Almost everybody but Mia Wasikowska — the “damsel” in question — is tilting at windmills.
The Zellners, who wrote, directed and co-star in the film, have moved to the Old West but the Coens are still close at hand. In lesser, hit-or-miss doses, “Damsel” has imitated some of their verbal theatricality and straight-faced comedy.
The “Waiting for Godot”-style opening is one of the movie’s high points. A defeated-looking preacher (a briefly seen but terrific Robert Forster) joins a man headed West at a comically remote stagecoach stop in the middle of a Monument Valley desert. Before stripping out of his clothes and handing his half-empty Bible (pages have been torn out for kindling, rolling papers and, he bashfully adds, “hygiene”) to the traveler, he warns the man that life in the West is no better than anywhere else, just bad in “new and fascinating ways.” He then runs off in his long underwear, calling to the Lord.
It’s an omen that no one in “Damsel” heeds: Look neither toward the West, nor a woman, for your self-reinvention, your “fresh start.”
Soon arriving is Robert Pattinson’s Samuel Alabaster, a stranger in town, who enlists Parson Henry (David Zellner) — the Monument Valley traveler, having inherited the pastor’s robe and Bible — to marry him and his fiancee, Penelope (Wasikowska). With a gold tooth and a miniature horse named Butterscotch, Pattinson gives the film a kick that it lacks when he departs. His Alabaster is prim, peculiar and possibly psychotic. Believing himself gallant, he has a song prepared for Penelope dubbed “Honey Bun.” Sample lyric: “You’re my horseshoe to my hoof.”
It’s well into the journey when Alabaster confesses Penelope has been kidnapped, so their mission is a combination rescue-proposal. His wide-eyed ardor for Penelope begins to grow suspiciously shallow. She’s “good at reading words, even good at kissing and lovemaking,” he says. “What more could you ask for?”
The proposal, naturally, doesn’t go quite as “lickety-split” as Alabaster envisions, and Henry — a gentle and half-formed man who naively craves the adventure of meeting “a real Indian” — is carried along by the unfolding events. That he isn’t a real man of God is little surprise to anyone. “But my heart is the right place,” he whimpers.
But, then again, none in “Damsel” are really quite up to the role they imagine themselves in, except for Wasikowka’s Penelope — the only sane person in the movie crowded with fools. Handsomely shot by Jeff Nichols’ regular cinematographer, Adam Stone, “Damsel” has the look of a classic Western but a story of dopey, lost men that could just as easily be told in modern-day Brooklyn. While the movie isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is, the Zellners have a sweet, likable sense of humor tinged with tragedy. And they remain filmmakers to watch.
“Damsel,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some violence, language, sexual material, and brief graphic nudity.” Running time: 113 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying par