By Megan Bianco
The bait-and-switch tactic used in storytelling can be very divisive and disastrous if not executed carefully. It’s become most common in the horror genre with movies like Psycho (1960), Scream (1996) and even recently with Hereditary (2018). But it happens in other genres too like dramas—The Place Beyond the Pines (2012)—and thrillers—Trance (2013). Having your plot start out as one thing and then completely turn into something else out of nowhere can make for misleading marketing. I didn’t see the trailer for Damsel before watching it, but going into the movie blind of the narrative was…interesting.
Set in the American Wild West during 1870, Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson) hires a drunken preacher called Parson Henry (David Zellner) to help him find and marry his fiancée Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). Samuel tells Henry that Penelope has been kidnapped in the woods and he needs to rescue her. On this journey across the frontier, we find Samuel is rather weak and clumsy, and Henry’s claim of being a preacher rather questionable. And Penelope may not even want to be rescued.
Damsel is written and directed by David and Nathan Zellner. The problem with Damsel isn’t really the switch in plot but more that the direction and tone of the comic relief are borderline tedious. There’s also the distracting choice for the characters to swear with modern foul language. The Zellner Bros. are the same pair who gave us Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014), which was also bizarre but less obnoxious. Pattinson and Wasikowska are two very interesting arthouse cinema actors, but are kind of wasted here.