Damsel review: Robert Pattinson’s western is the anti-Hostiles | Sundance

Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson appear in Damsel. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Adam Stone

Last year’s Hostiles showed the brutality of the western frontier in a way that’s never been portrayed on film before. Damsel is not that. Robert Pattinson stars as a cowboy totally not cut out for the old west.

Sam Alabaster (Pattinson) comes looking for his fiance to be Penelope (Mia Wasikoswa). He hires a preacher, Parson Henry (David Zellner) to join the hunt so he can officiate the ceremony as soon as Sam rescues her.

Sam is no Clint Eastwood and his mission is no Unforgiven. With a silver tooth and solid western drawl, nothing else about Sam is a tough guy.

He’s introduced dancing goofily with Penelope. He can barely sip whiskey and he struggles to even manage his western garb. He sings a sappy ballad called “Honeybun” and masturbates to a picture of Penelope. Sorry Bella, this Pattinson doesn’t have vampire powers of abstinence.

Pattinson’s not the only goofy one. Damsel is an absurd western where pretty much everyone they encounter is jarring.

There’s a laughing man wearing a barrel, a gunman in Davey Crocket attire (Nathan Zellner) and a Native American who can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. These wouldn’t be the hosts of Westworld.

None of the cowboy paraphernalia works right either. Guns backfire, reloading goes too slow and violent confrontations become absurd in a Coen Brothers kind of way.

I think we catch on to what’s really going on before Sam does. Penelope doesn’t need saving and the men just keep making it worse. That’s a very modern feminist take on a western.

There’ve been feminist westerns before, my favorite being The Quick and the Dead, but this isn’t even specific to women. It’s true for anyone who’s surrounded by incompetent people trying to fix them. Fix yourself first, dudes.

The language is also modern. Did they refer to bathroom needs as number one and number two back then? Mainly the language is irreverent to undercut the faux gravitas of Sam’s mission.

Damsel is a rootin’ tootin’ good time. It’s dark for sure, but Robert Pattinson has no vanity about being the butt of the joke and writer/directors the Zellner Brothers keep the surprises coming ‘til the end.

Damsel premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

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