[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Damsel.”]
Robert Pattinson is no stranger to surprising his fans. Whether he’s having sex in a limousine with Juliette Binoche (“Cosmopolis”) or making out with a teenage girl (“Good Time”), the 32-year-old actor has made it clear to expect the unexpected when watching his films. “Damsel,” Pattinson’s new film from writer-directors David and Nathan Zellner, takes this mentality to a new extreme and delivers the actor’s most shocking onscreen moment to date.
“Damsel” stars Pattinson as Samuel Alabaster, a bumbling pioneer venturing across the American frontier to rescue and marry the love of his life, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). The Zellner brothers’ jarring twist arrives just before the halfway point, when it’s revealed that Penelope doesn’t need saving at all, not from Samuel or from any man. Part of the reason she ran away and settled down in a remote cabin is to be as far away from Samuel as possible. Anton, the man Samuel thought was Penelope’s captor, is really the love of her life.
The revelation subverts every acting choice Pattinson has made since the start of the film. The actor presents Samuel as a lovable simpleton and a goofy romantic (a scene where Pattinson sings an ode to Penelope called “Honeybun” could be his funniest onscreen moment to date). But the twist paints the character in a more dangerous and delusional light. Samuel’s false perception of his relationship to Penelope makes the character far more unhinged than the script originally led viewers to believe (in an interview with IndieWire last week, Pattinson called the character “a psychopath”).
Samuel made Penelope his damsel-in-distress obsession, and it’s when she shatters this perception of herself in Samuel’s eyes that the Zellner brothers deliver their biggest twist: Samuel, distressed and unable to accept a life without Penelope, walks into a shed and shoots himself.
Pattinson is one of the most popular actors on the planet, so witnessing his character commit suicide long before the end credits provides a shock like no other. In a career full of unexpected moments, this “Damsel” death scene — one of two, anyway — is the most startling to date. Samuel’s sudden decision is a game-changer for the film, shifting the entire narrative’s perspective to Penelope’s point of view. The change in main characters allows the Zellners to undercut their original male savior storyline and deliver a feminist revision of this archetypal narrative. For the Zellners, this pivotal twist was the heart of “Damsel” from the earliest stages of development.
“David was talking about the script and the idea early on, and how interesting it would be to have that sort of switch in the middle, at the climax,” Nathan told IndieWire in an interview out of the SXSW Film Festival. “Usually, that’s where the movie would end, at that confrontation that we lead up to. But we liked the idea of seeing them deal with the aftermath.”
David added that the unconventional development was an opportunity to toy with a familiar storytelling tradition. “Beyond the Western genre, there’s always such a thing with the guy going to rescue the woman,” he said. “Any kind of action movie, or anything, it’s always the guy going to rescue the woman. I just liked the idea of playing with that. And as the story evolved, that was the seed that everything germinated from.”
Pattinson’s love for working with visionary filmmakers has been obvious over the last several years. The actor’s post-“Twilight” career has found him collaborating with the likes of David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, James Gray, and the Safdie brothers, among others. Pattinson’s choices have made him one of the more exciting actors in the business, and his decision to say “yes” to a shockingly limited role in “Damsel” just for the chance to work with the Zellner brothers might just push him to the top of that list.
“It’s the boldest decision you can make in writing something,” Pattinson told IndieWire about Samuel’s death, praising the Zellner brothers for the choice. “It’s such a gamble. I never considered how much an audience invest in a character’s journey. You lead an audience in this direction for a while and then it just ends. It’s interesting to see an audience come to terms a bit as they realize that this isn’t a trick, that it’s part of the story.”
Pattinson went on to say that he loves any story that surprises the audience, which made accepting the role of Samuel in “Damsel” a no-brainer. His “Damsel” death has set the bar high on his list of most unexpected movie moments, but anyone who has been following his career knows he’s more then capable of topping himself. Next up for the actor are roles in Claire Denis’ “High Life,” Robert Eggers’ “The Light House,” and David Michôd’s “The King.”
“Damsel” is now playing in select theaters and will expand throughout the summer.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.