Sometimes you encounter the kind of movie that makes you feel the day can’t get any better than this. If you haven’t had that sort of chance meeting recently, let me introduce you to a considerable achievement titled “Damsel,” a seriously told Old West adventure that is a screwball comedy in disguise.
It is an absolute treasure to experience, at least if you think that most of what killed people in the 1870s was generally pretty funny. Since I don’t recall seeing lunacy built so ingeniously into a classic Western since the Coen brothers remade “True Grit,” I laughed a lot.
Shot in storybook sunlight across the sweeping Oregon woodlands, this is a very sophisticated farce about a primitive world, one that both respects and mocks the stereotypes it is recycling. Some of the movie’s best moments are sharp jabs deflating male attitudes from our carbon-dated past, and others lampooning similar opinions in force right now.
Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska deliver delightfully funny deadpan performances in this story of love, confusion and consequences on the frontier. They manage to be wonderfully entertaining by never being too silly.
He plays Samuel, a well-to-do greenhorn on his way to reunite with his girlfriend of old, Penelope. This disarming, guileless tenderfoot is Pattinson’s best work to date. The smug, swoon-inducing matinee idol of the “Twilight” films proves that he can take control of a richly layered role. A romantic through and through, this innocent nincompoop brings Butterscotch, a miniature palomino, as a surprise engagement gift. Because what could any woman value more than a waist-high horse?
Though “Damsel” is named after Penelope — or so you might think — she doesn’t really enter the story until the story is half over. Samuel and his preacher encounter several Big Bad Wolves en route to his beloved, and the long build of carefully set anticipation makes the voyage all the more enjoyable.
Samuel has planned their reunion to the letter, as he explains to the drunkard sham clergyman he hires to accompany him on his journey. As soon as Samuel frees Penelope from the blackguard who has kidnapped her, he will kneel and propose marriage, the parson will unite them on the spot, and love’s young dream will come true.
Camping under the stars in the back country, Samuel pulls out his guitar to serenade the parson with a song he wrote for his beloved, “My Honey Bun.” The chorus goes “You’re my honeybun, my honeybun, my honeybun … ” and it is uncomfortably, absurdly endless.
Written, directed by and co-starring David and Nathan Zellner in sizable roles, the film moves at a calm, deliberate pace, like a trotting calf. It takes some time to get used to the movie’s rhythms, and the way the talkative characters embed wry mini-narratives in the larger design of the yarn. The identity of the film’s most authoritative and intelligent character is one of their script’s many good uses of irony, danger and mirth.
What makes ”Damsel” very much worth watching is the performances. Pattinson accomplishes a lot that is original and eccentric. He dresses like a new visitor to a dude ranch and moves with the awkward incompetence of a knotted-up marionette. He invests in the part with such assurance that he wears imperfect teeth to hide his heartthrob glory. We watch him and the usually dramatic Wasikowska clogging through a giddy barn dance at the opening credits, and their glowing smiles suggest they were made for each other. Alas, the course of true love never runs smooth.
The Zellners have a style all their own. They’re best known for “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” a shaggy dog tragicomedy that follows a depressed Tokyo office worker on an obsessive quest down wintry Minnesota highways because she believes her VHS copy of “Fargo” contains clues to an actual buried briefcase of cash. The Zellners like their stories to be quirky and at times spectacularly odd. Their films aren’t Coenesque exactly, but definitely Coen-adjacent. This is my definition of top-class tomfoolery.