“Damsel” opens against a vast expanse of orange dust and red rock, somewhere in the unsettled American West of the 19th century. The vistas are majestic enough for framing (and cinematographer Adam Stone does the honors nicely), the atmosphere hushed to an almost otherworldly degree. Before long, another beautifully weathered landscape looms into the frame: the face of actor Robert Forster, who plays a world-weary preacher at the end of his tether, awaiting a stagecoach bound for greener pastures.
But even simple mercies prove elusive in these godforsaken parts. The stagecoach doesn’t show up and the preacher soon vanishes from the scene, though not before bequeathing his clothes, his Bible and his identity to a stranger waiting nearby. That man (an excellent David Zellner), a sad-sack widower who henceforth goes by the name of Parson Henry, tells anyone who will listen that he’s just “looking for a fresh start” — a longing that sounds more pathetic and improbable with each reiteration.
But it also sums up the approach of the movie, which has a curious way of resetting itself — sometimes quietly, sometimes with startling force — as it proceeds along its droll, funny and somewhat plodding journey. As written and directed by David Zellner and his brother, Nathan Zellner, “Damsel” is a deadpan art-western prank, a sly fusion of classical technique and postmodern sensibility. With a melancholy wink, a rich, synth-heavy score by the Octopus Project and a nod to Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” it twists the narrative tropes and visual iconography of the vintage western into an elaborate cinephile goof.
That prologue lays out the movie’s concerns in miniature: dashed hopes, secret identities and the dangerous art of self-reinvention. Fittingly enough, “Damsel” itself starts off telling one story and gradually reveals itself to be telling another. Early on, we’re following a handsome traveler named Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who arrives on this western frontier by sailboat — a shot of the Oregon coastline is one of the movie’s more surreally disorienting jokes — and swiftly makes his way toward the nearest desert town.
Samuel immediately seems out of place among the town’s various drunken uglies, not just because of his highfalutin’ words and courtly manners (he asks for a Pilsener and gets a whiskey in return), but also because he’s a man on a mission: He has hired Parson Henry to help him find and marry his lady love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). What he doesn’t tell the preacher, at least not right away, is that Penelope has been kidnapped and is now being held prisoner somewhere out in the wilderness.
Everything about Samuel initially seems calculated for ridicule: the exaggerated cowboy accent, the single gold tooth marring his otherwise flawless matinee-idol grin, the fact that he has brought along an adorable miniature horse named Butterscotch as a wedding gift for Penelope. But Pattinson, whose recent work in “Good Time” and “The Lost City of Z” confirmed his emergence as one of the best and nerviest actors of his generation, refuses to turn the character into a mere punchline.
There’s so much love and conviction and oddball spirit in the performance that you never feel embarrassed for Samuel, not even when he pulls out a guitar and sings a love song called “Honeybun” that he’s written for Penelope. (Sample lyrics: “My honeybun, honeybun, honeybun … honeybun, honeybun, honeybun … ”) You may feel an even sharper twinge of sympathy when the movie suddenly turns on him and reveals, contrary to what he may have thought, that he is not the conquering hero of this story.
Who is, then? Certainly not the gormless Parson Henry, or the doofus-y mountain man (Nathan Zellner) who crosses paths with them in the wilderness, sporting a malfunctioning rifle and a nasty temper. An intriguing contender emerges in the form of Zacharia Running Bear, a Native American wanderer played with sublimely minimalist gravity by Joseph Billingiere. (The actor died last year after the movie’s completion.)
Perhaps the true hero here is Penelope, who emerges at the halfway mark and immediately seizes hold of the picture. Penelope, it turns out, is nobody’s damsel and certainly nobody’s honeybun; she’s a liberated 19th-century woman, a gun-toting frontier-feminist badass who sprays angry contempt like buckshot in every direction. Her steely competence serves as a rebuke to all the bumbling male ineptitude in her midst, and also, implicitly, to the history of a cinematic genre that has often relegated her kind to dutiful positions on the sideline.
“Damsel,” in other words, drolly embraces every surface convention of the American western, while seeking to upgrade and complicate its sometimes comfortingly easy moral logic. It has the brazen, one-damned-thing-after-another quality (and the occasionally hair-raising violence) of a dark comedy by another sibling duo, Joel and Ethan Coen, whose talent for seamlessly deconstructing and rehabilitating vintage movie genres is an obvious inspiration here. (The Coens exerted an even more explicit influence on the Zellners’ previous film, the quietly haunting “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.”)
Some of the jokes here land better than others, but all of them are embedded in a dramatic framework that has clearly been thought through, maybe to a fault. There is something inspired about the idea of fusing old-school aesthetic brio and revisionist politics, but the instant you see what “Damsel” is up to, its power begins to dissipate.
It doesn’t help that the movie’s crucial shift in perspective is in some ways at odds with its actors’ central dynamic. Wasikowska’s performance as Penelope is arresting, if also a bit unmodulated in its spitfire ferocity. By contrast, Samuel may be a stooge, a tool and a deeply misguided individual, but Pattinson is nonetheless the movie’s most surprising, off-kilter and delightful element. He barrels through the proceedings with such purpose that he leaves the rest of the movie, and the other sad, drifting souls who populate it, feeling as if they have nowhere to go.
Rating: R, for some violence, language, sexual material and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles