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      Damsel Review

      Damsel poster

      Damsel

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      The opening shots of "Damsel," thanks to cinematographer Adam Stone, are misleadingly evocative. We're somewhere in Utah (the movie was made there, and along the Oregon coast). Against a forbiddingly beautiful landscape of red rock and imposing sky, two men wait for a stagecoach. One, a disillusioned man of the cloth, is played by Robert Forster.

      "I come out here to spoon-feed religion to the savages. Tried real hard," he says, defeated. Forster is perfect, and the tone of the scene -- pathetic, comic, just weird enough to stick -- promises good things to come.

      And then they do not come. This latest film from the Zellner brothers, screenwriters/directors David and Nathan, undermines its glib, winky self every step of the way in this "Feminism for Dummies, Old West edition" dawdle through some mighty pretty country.

      Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson, with a gold-capped tooth and a jumpy demeanor) arrives in an unnamed town with a miniature horse named Butterscotch in tow. The horse is a wedding gift for his intended, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), a later participant in the story.

      Samuel has hired the lost soul Parson Henry (David Zellner), the other man waiting for the stagecoach in the prologue, to accompany him on the journey toward Penelope and the planned nuptials. But there's a hitch: Penelope has been abducted by a romantic rival and needs rescuing, Samuel eventually tells the parson. In its second, increasingly violent half, "Damsel" pivots toward Penelope's version of events, with the parson serving as the beleaguered linking device.

      Nathan Zellner takes a supporting role of his own; like his brother, he's quite effective within his range. Yet they'd need a different script and more discerning directors to really come alive on screen. That's true of the stars, too, both of whom (especially Wasikowska) have the stuff it takes. The movie owes a debt to Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," though more often it sounds like a skeezier version of William Goldman-brand "Butch Cassidy" wiseassery. (In one repellent exchange a saloon patron invites Samuel to a gang rape, noting that "it'd be a good way fer ya to meet folks.") Wasikowska struggles to activate a vague notion of female disenfranchisement and victimhood, triumphant. She and Pattinson fill in as many blanks as they can, where they can.

      The Zellners aren't without talent: Though they don't move the camera enough, they have an eye for natural vistas, and there's an early, wordless extended shot of Wasikowska and Pattinson at a wedding dance that slyly indicates something may be going on behind the facade. Like everything else attractive to the eye in "Damsel," this image of happiness is a cruel illusion. It's also an unilluminating one.

      MPAA rating: R (for some violence, language, sexual material and brief graphic nudity).

      Running time: 1:53

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