Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska Brave the Old West in Offbeat Western ‘Damsel’

Robert Pattinson continues in his quest to shed his dreamboat image and prove himself as a versatile actor in the offbeat western “Damsel.” Pattinson’s latest oddball character is Samuel Alabaster, a seemingly sweet and earnest young man intent on marrying a young lady named Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), who for the first half or so of the film exits only as a black-and-white photo in a locket kept by her admirer. So eager is Samuel to enter into matrimony that he has engaged a so-called parson, Henry (David Zellner, who also co-directed and co-wrote with his brother Nathan), to accompany on his journey to propose to Penelope, as he pressumes the lady will immediately accept and they can wed right then and there. Unbeknownst to Samuel. Henry is only masquerading as a man of God, something revealed in the film’s drawn-out prologue. However, the more the viewer gets to know Samuel, the more apparent it becomes that facts don’t matter to him much anyway, and what transpires is a bizarre chain of events, that are at times both darkly comedic and horrifying.

Far from the dark and dreamy “Twilight” heartthrob vampire Edward Cullen, Pattinson is Samuel is positively cringeworthy here. In one memorable scene, he plays for Henry the awful love song he wrote for Penelope, his “honeybun.” Although “Damsel” is a miles away from Pattinson’s previous indie endeavor, “Good Times,” he is similar here in that he isn’t afraid to embarrass himself and be gross. This is especially apparent when Samuel is shown pleasuring himself to the aforementioned photo of Penelope. Pattinson is such a delight watch, as never knows what choice he is going to make next.

In early scenes, Samuel comes off as somewhat of a gentleman, but turns out to be rather unhinged, something that poor Henry realizes too late in the game. Without giving too much away, there’s a twist about halfway through, and the story becomes Penelope’s, and Henry sees himself transferred from being Samuel’s figurative hostage to her literal one. Suffice to say, she’s no damsel, just a woman trying to survive in the male-dominated Old West.

What the Zellners do best here is to show the detrimental effects of extreme toxic masculinity. Think Hollywood is bad? Try being a young woman in a land of outlaws. Penelope finds herself not only fighting off advances from her brutes like Rufus (Nathan Zellner), but also from the so-called “nice guys,” who feel entitled to her affections and whatever else she has to offer just because they’re lonely. The loneliness and desperation frontier life breeds also comes through loud and clear here. Wasikowska, who has a track record of playing strong women in period films (i.e. “Jane Eyre” and her feminist-tinged “Alice in Wonderland”), is in top form here as the tough and determined Penelope. She does have a soft spot, however, for Butterscotch, the adorable miniature horse gifted to her by Samuel. Although the modern female may never know what it’s like to have been a pioneer, Penelope’s plight and resistance to conforming to men’s fantasies will certainly resonate with her.

Damsel” opens June 22 in New York and Los Angeles, expanding to more cities June 29 and throughout July. For a complete list of dates and theaters, go here.