The mad science behind the filmmaking trickery of Austin sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner is that they make wise movies that seem like superficial larks. From their outrageous suburban comedy “Goliath” all the way through the surreal meta “Fargo” riff “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter,” the Zellners excel at transforming absurd circumstances into trenchant observations of human behavior. With the wildly adventurous “Damsel,” they conjure a kooky Old West setting with antics straight out of “Blazing Saddles,” unearthing a poetic vision of desperate men and the woman who wants nothing to do with them.
That’s Penelope (Mia Wasikowska, in a wonderfully spunky performance), a fierce-minded pioneer incapable of evading various attempts to woo her. However, the exact nature of her situation remains shrouded in mystery for the meandering first act, when it seems as though she serves as a motivating device for a more traditional male hero. As usual, the Zellner are messing with us.
After a stunningly odd opening that suggests “Waiting for Godot” reimagined by Sergio Leone (and an instantly timeless cameo by the great Robert Forster), “Damsel” settles on the exploits of a dapper young traveler named Samuel (Robert Pattinson). He first presents himself as a gallant hero out to rescue Penelope, his fiancée, from a pair of kidnappers who took her deep into the mountains. Enlisting a local drunk who claims to be a priest named Parson (David Zellner), he launches into the wilderness and concocts a bland rescue mission.
There are a few signs that Samuel’s not as sharp as he acts. While the baffled Parson looks on, Samuel plots out his plan using a flower, two bullets and a pile of dung as his props. Sitting around the campfire the night before the attack, he rehearses a sophomoric guitar ballad with the conviction that Penelope will melt into his arms, and most crucially, comes bearing an inane gift — a shiny golden pony named Butterscotch, who gives the innocent rabbit Bunzo of “Kumiko” fame a run for its money as the most ridiculous animal prop in recent American cinema. Butterscotch is a silent witness to a steady buildup of circumstances in which only a dumb creature with no real agency emerges unscathed.
Dominating the movie’s aimless first act, Pattinson excels at projecting the confidence of a man unable to comprehend his own stupidity. (He makes the actor’s clumsy bank robber in “Good Time” look like an evil genius.) If the movie solely relied on his antics, it would eventually become insufferable, but he’s just a starting point for a whole different arc.
When Penelope finally enters the picture, she’s far more domineering than earlier characterizations suggest, and the title takes on an ironic edge. As the would-be couple bicker in a peculiar showdown, Zellner’s Parson (much like the earnest-but-misguided police officer he played in “Kumiko”) stumbles alongside them with a dopey, helpless reaction to each new development. Other similarly clueless figures wander through — including a deranged frontiersman played by Nathan Zellner — attempting to take charge and just making matters worse. They adhere to the unspoken assumption that Penelope needs their assistance at every turn, and her continuing frustrations over their advances lead to a series of slapstick payoffs.
One perceptive audience member at the Sundance premiere aptly termed the movie “There’s Something About Mary” in the Old West, but it’s less wacky and more introspective, treating its cartoonish premise with a straight face and daring you to blink. Though some may recall the slow-burn deadpan of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man,” he certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on postmodern Westerns, and “Damsel” adheres more directly to the Zellners’ unique voice. Ever since “Kid-Thing,” the brothers have excelled at writing distinctive female characters who defy expectations, and “Damsel” marks the apex of that trend. The movie tears the western trope apart from the inside out with a sneaky feminist sensibility, rising to a crescendo when an exasperated Penelope declares, “I don’t need anyone’s saving!” Meanwhile, the men around her are beyond salvation.
Throughout its twisty path, “Damsel” unfolds against a polished backdrop of the lush outdoors. (The Zellners shot much of “Damsel” in Utah, not far from the festival.) Cinematographer Adam Stone, who transformed the rural setting of “Take Shelter” into an apocalyptic wasteland, here captures a rich landscape of deep red desert formations and dense forestry that takes on a Kafkaesque dimension as various lost souls wander deeper into the brush.
The downside to the Zellners’ uncompromising approach is that they sometimes hold an inspired moment for too long. Certain scenes drag, and some banter has an airless quality that causes a few gags to fall flat. But it’s often rescued by nuggets of hilarious dialogue (“Put your dynamite back on!” and “I’m not the posse type!” are personal favorites) and the steady realization that the movie always has been one step ahead of audience assumptions. The complete raison d’être of this oddball premise doesn’t arrive until a bitter final exchange, with a beautiful coda that suggests the story represents a never-ending cycle of lonely obsession.
As Penelope keeps evading the masculine archetypes surrounding her, the brothers’ script closes with the idea that love and survival aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s a recurring theme on Planet Zellner, where downtrodden losers hover on the brink of desperation, terrified by a world that treats them like a cruel joke. Only Penelope has the brains to look that punchline in the eye and walk the other way.
“Damsel” screened in the Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.