Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Jun 22, 2018 5:32 am 
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MIA WASIKOWSKA AND ROBERT PATTNSON IN DAMSEL

Western folly

Damsel is a farrago of silliness laced with violence, fueled by anger, that plays with the Western movie genre in a whimsical way. It's another chance for Robert Pattison, "Twilight" divo no more, to show his adventurous spirit and willingness to work with offbeat directors. It's another "quest" tale that's a decided improvement over the Zellner brother's dreary last such feature, Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter. Adam Stone's lovely landscape images feel historic, and scenes of Utah and the Oregon coast are beautifully chosen. But the tone is uneven, and the pacing falters and begins to fizzle out halfway through, never recovering once Pattison leaves the screen; one prays in vain for his return. The Zellners seem partly inspired by Jim Jarmusch's 1995 Dead Man, obviously the revisionist Western to end all, but the comparison isn't flattering; this has only a few of the trappings. Lovers of Western genre whimsy still may enjoy Damsel's wry absurdity, and some memorable scenes, even if those are largely restricted to the film's first half.

The movie begins with a seemingly unrelated set piece of almost Beckettian rigor, a young man and an old awaiting a stagecoach, the elder a disillusioned preacher (Robert Forster) who came out West "to spoonfeed religion to the savages," now leaving it, having decided "We've got a lot of Christians, don't need no more." The young man (David Zellner) is curious about different Indian tribes. The preacher goes mad and wanders into the desert, leaving the younger his preacher suit and a Bible missing a few pages. The stillness of this scene is sharply contrasted with its immediate followup: a joyous, hyperactive square dance with Samuel Alabaster (Pattinson) and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) jigging merrily together. A neat setup, these two scenes, followed by Samuel arriving on a foamy, fantastic coast in a small boat, with a large wood box. But this movie's scenes grow less inspired as they go along.

Samuel has a dream of Penelope, perhaps based on this moment of frantic dancing, that he pursues vainly. He turns out to be a dangerous fool whose idiocy is fueled by money. Thus he bribes an alcoholic parson (none other than the young man in the first scene ) with the extraordinary offer of sixty dollars, to accompany him on a trip to the far West to "rescue" and marry Penelope, believing himself madly in love with her. He brings a valuable ring and a rare blonde-colored miniature horse called Butterscotch as offerings. The only trouble is that Penelope is out there with another man entirely of her own free will and has no desire whatever to be with Samuel. And of course the young ersatz parson is no asset to the quest, being insecure, confused, and in need of a drink.

Violence and conflict ensue, but the action seems to stall more than once. Pattinson has a buoyant jollity, certainly a contrast to his grim, more distinctive role in those other brothers', the Safdies' crime story Good Time. The recalcitrant Penelope is played in rather one-note fashion by Wasikowska, but it is David Zellner as the challenged young imposter who dominates the action. His mix of questioning and plaintive is endearing. But one has to agree with Jonathan Romney's Berlin Guardian review that Damsel is "awkwardly facetious" at times and doesn't take itself as seriously as one would like. It is Dead Man's ability to take itself very seriously, as seriously as a walking corpse, that makes it so memorable and so classic a revisionist Western. This one skirts the edges more. One will remember it, though, for its few special set pieces, the handsome landscapes, and Robert Pattinson having a wild good time.

Damsel, 113 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, followed by half a dozen international festivals including Berlin and SxSW. It opens theatrically in the US 22 Jun. 2018. Current Metascore 66%.

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