About halfway through Damsel, maybe a little earlier, maybe much earlier if you’re looking for it, Robert Pattinson, who has been playing the lead role, turns out to be less heroic than you might have assumed, and certainly less heroic than his character has made himself out to be so far. This might constitute a spoiler if I was more specific, or if Robert Pattinson had played any actual heroic roles since his work as the ultimate Hero Who’s Not, Really as the lead in the Twilight series. This isn’t a criticism so much as a fact: Robert Pattinson has played creeps, fuck-ups, and/or blunderers so many times that it’s his moments seeming like a sweet naïf that subvert expectations, not any undermining of his matinee-idol image (besides, five Twilight movies arguably did that already, albeit unintentionally).
That’s about right for Damsel, which makes a sharp point much later and more frequently than is, perhaps, necessary. The cue is right there in the title; obviously when Samuel (Pattinson) recruits a supposed parson (co-writer/co-director David Zellner) to help rescue his beloved Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) in a movie called Damsel, there’s probably going to be more going on than, you know, rescuing the damsel and going home. The movie’s twist, of sorts, is less notable for its ribbing of Old West tropes than its commitment to the bit: Once Wasikowska’s character gains some dimension in the back half of the movie, it doesn’t let up its pokes at very male complexes.
I’ll tiptope further around spoilers, and say only that the movie’s present-day relevance is also telegraphed, this time cleverly, in David and Nathan Zellner’s dialogue, a consistently amusing mix of faked old-timey elaborations (perfect for a pair of sibling filmmakers who love the Coen Brothers enough to make their previous film Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a fascinating Fargo riff) and spoof-flavored colloquialisms (perfect for a pair of sibling filmmakers who are, in the end, not as inspired writers as the Coen Brothers).
Their pacing, though, can be deadly… and maybe deliberately? There’s no reason that Damsel, even with its clever change in direction and lovingly drawn-out gags and conversations, needs to run two hours, and the Zellners must, on some level, know this. The effect isn’t actually audience punishment–this is a picaresque yet biting western-satire that features a miniature pony named Butterscotch, after all–but it does feel perverse, especially when they don’t use that time to let Wasikowska’s Penelope come fully into her own. For all of Wasikowska’s wonderful work with her furrowed brow and moxie (she’s wonderfully adept at holding the screen without turning on a faucet of superficial charm), the movie still defines her by her relationships to dumbass men. It’s satirical, yes, but it’s not always interesting. The Zellners have carefully crafted a movie that is often quite funny, and subversive to a point, but unlike Kumiko, there isn’t much soulfulness underneath the formal play. In a way, it’s another kind of tribute to the Coens, who are often accused of chilly aloofness or condescension; the one-note satire of Damsel makes even lesser Coen movies look a little richer by comparison.
Damsel and Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town are both odyssey movies, opening in a similar passel of cities this weekend, and they’re both women’s stories written and directed by men. But Izzy’s writer-director Christian Papierniak, in his debut feature, avoids so many pitfalls of what should, by all rights, be a cutesy, posturing indie nightmare. Izzy (Mackenzie Davis) wakes up in a bloodied caterer’s uniform in a stranger’s bed, and when she finds out her ex-boyfriend is engaged to be married and celebrating on another side of Los Angeles, she endeavors to cajole, hitch, pedal, or connive her way to the party to reclaim him, despite being dead broke and lacking her own car.
I admit, this movie sounded to me like a potentially toxic cross between indie-movie edge (lol what a hot mess!! I bet she says what’s on her mind, too, no matter the swears!!! Just look at her movie’s title!!) and Hollywood rom-com contrivance. But whether Papierniak is an especially nuanced writer or lucky to have Davis playing Izzy or, most likely, some combination of the two, the movie is often well-observed, even quiet. Izzy is indeed kind of a hot mess, but she’s a specific hot mess: a singer-songwriter, formerly of a faintly buzzy band, who’s been kicking around Los Angeles for a few years without making many real friends–maybe even netting a loss by overstaying her welcome on one couple’s couch. But she doesn’t go on righteous, overwritten rants designed to telegraph her edginess. Some of the movie’s best moments just let Davis quietly react, scanning her face for the emotion barely concealed beneath a tired, embittered version of bravado. It’s plainly obvious from the jump that breaking up this engagement won’t fix Izzy’s life, but the movie is more about the state of mind that tells her this could be true rather than trying to get audience buy-in on a ridiculous premise.
Structurally, the movie is one of those zany-vignette features, with the lead character bouncing from eccentric to eccentric on her hapless quest. It’s a surprise, then, that most of the eccentrics feel kinda real, from Lakeith Stanfield as Izzy’s soft-spoken blackout-paramour to Haley Joel Osment as a dude she knows only from TaskRabbit to Alia Shawkat as the type of woman you can talk to for minutes on end before slowly realizing that she’s insane. Not all of it is hilarious, but only some of it is strained, which for this type of movie is impressive. And a late-movie scene with Izzy and her estranged sister Virginia (Carrie Coon) is a stunner that made me want to buy Heavens to Betsy records even more than Sleater-Kinney breaking up did. The scene, like many of the film’s best moments, lays Izzy’s emotions bare, rather than making a playful-yet-labored statement about womanhood. Sometimes all it takes to subvert a particular genre is to make a good version of it.