Damsel begins with a view of a gorgeous, windswept desert somewhere in the American West, an alternately alluring and frightening arena where many an old-fashioned heroic narrative has been forged. A wizened priest (Robert Forster) talks to a young parson, Henry (David Zellner), telling him the only thing awaiting him on the frontier is violence and savagery. Not from Native Americans (“Some are lousy, some not, just like everyone else, I reckon,” he says), but from Henry’s fellow travelers, and from the very land they’re foolishly trying to conquer.
The film cuts right from that pessimistic vision to a perfectly idealized one—two handsome lovers, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) and Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), dance together in a barn as the crowd around them claps and cheers. But, as the priest warned, life out West isn’t as sweet and simple as it might seem. Damsel, written and directed by the Zellner Brothers (Nathan and the aforementioned David), is a grimly funny, gorgeously photographed epic that builds up the iconography of old, romantic Westerns and then delights in toppling it. It’s a story with a midpoint twist so audacious, you can’t help but revel in its absurdity.
At the same time, Damsel is perhaps too pleased with the ways in which it subverts the genre it’s working within. The film mostly exists to point out the racist and sexist structures inherent to the Western, to the concepts of gunslinging heroes and damsels in distress. But it is far from the first revisionist Western to make those kinds of observations. Though it’s well-acted, often incredible to look at, and filled with straightforward slapstick humor, Damsel doesn’t have much to offer beyond its shocking second-act plot reversal. As an indie film with a clever gimmick, it’s worth seeing, though it never quite sustains the sweeping feel of its first two scenes.