“Damsel” is an odd one: a flaky Western picaresque that seems like a slacker lark for its first third, but then darkens considerably in its midsection before dissipating in a mist of exquisite photography and half-examined ideas. There are a handful of show-offy performances by the male members of the cast and one of grace, pressure, and frustration from the sole woman, a pioneer settler played by Mia Wasikowska. That may be the movie’s point. In any event, it may not be until it’s over that you realize she’s actually the movie’s hero.
In other words, it’s a Zellner brothers movie. The Austin, Texas,-based writer-directors, David and Nathan, have been making films together since the late 1990s, but only with “Kid-Thing” (2012) and the incandescently strange “Kumiko the Treasure Hunter” (2014) have they come to broader attention. “Damsel,” goofy, absurdist, and subversive, feels like a brave step in an uncertain direction.
The early scenes are stolen by Robert Pattinson (“Twilight,” “Good Time”) as Samuel Alabaster, a zealously optimistic young man traveling across the 19th-century wilderness toward his true love, Penelope (Wasikowska). He has hired an itinerant pastor, Preacher Henry (David Zellner), to come along and solemnify the nuptials. He’s also in possession of a wedding present in the form of a miniature horse named Butterscotch. At times, “Damsel” feels like it’s channeling every stoner New Hollywood western ever made — Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” Robert Downey’s “Greaser’s Palace,” Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” — with a heavy dusting of indie-movie quirk.
With its talk about “relationships” and “win-win situations,” the dialogue written by the Zellners barely pretends to stay in period. And yet the movie looks like a “real western,” with crisp photography by Adam Stone, and the Zellners’ crazy-quilt approach to tone — now genre parody, now midnight-movie freak-out, now Beckett-style existential slapstick — feels purposeful. “Damsel” is more than a pastiche but ultimately less than the sum of its ricochet ideas.
Still, Pattinson is something to see as the confident 19th-century swain — so confident, in fact, that his all-American optimism starts to seem like a threat. As “Damsel” progresses in ambling fits and starts, we notice that all the movie’s men, including a grizzled mountain man played by Nathan Zellner and a Native American played by Joseph Billingiere, assume that Penelope is up for grabs as property.
Wasikowska fumes with beleaguered intelligence in response and finally just decides to take charge of the situation, at which point it occurred to me that “Damsel” uses the Wild West as a pokey, saddle-sore metaphor for what women go through on a daily basis, both in social media and in life. The frontier as a symbol not of manifest destiny but of man’s idiocy? There’s an interesting movie in that. “Damsel” gets about halfway there.
Directed by David Zellner and Nathan Zellner. Written by David and Nathan Zellner, Chris Ohlson. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Robert Pattinson, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Robert Forster. At Kendall Square, West Newton. 113 minutes. R (some violence, language, sexual material, brief graphic nudity)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.