Damsel, a new, subversive take on the Western from indie darlings Nathan and David Zellner (Kumiko the Treasure Hunter), introduces Robert Pattinson’s character Samuel Alabaster during the opening credits. He’s dancing. There’s little context, but the English actor gives the character such a light step that I had first assumed I was watching the feet of a marionette. It’s a performance that’s disturbing from the first moment; I was hooked.
Alabaster is a thin, reedy man with a silver tooth who carries himself with an absolute lack of self-consciousness, no matter how ridiculous he seems. His clothing always seems too tight, and his movements — whether he’s removing a guitar slung on his back or presenting the locket around his neck — are exaggerated. In lesser hands it’d be the centerpiece of a slapstick comedy. Working with the Zellners, it’s a surrealist masterstroke. Pattinson is able to make a character who is presented to the viewer as a sort of hero, at least at first, feel gross in a way that’s rare in modern cinema.
The hooligan is the latest in a long line of strange, uncomfortable roles Pattinson has taken on as he escapes his past with the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises. It’s not a path he had to take. Pattinson had everything one could want as a young actor after his YA-fueled ascent: fame, legions of fans, wealth and a look that screamed “beautiful young hero.” Based on years of interviews, it was the last thing he had hoped for.
And that gave us Pattinson in the David Cronenberg-directed Cosmopolis, in which he carried an entire film from the back of a limo. In the Don DeLillo adaptation, Pattinson stars as a young billionaire who is ferried across New York as he loses wealth but gains a prostate exam. It’s a tricky movie to describe in a paragraph or two.
Cronenberg took advantage of Pattinson’s looks while plumbing the actor’s legendary self-loathing to create the sort of science fiction that felt biting at the time but seems almost quaint in 2018. Pattinson is a monster in a pool of beautiful objects, and the film’s direction gets the most it can out of shooting him with the sexy detachment you might see in a commercial for a leather couch.
Cronenberg would bring Pattinson back for the Hollywood satire Map to the Stars, and the two men seemed to be happy — and creatively fulfilled — to use each other for mutual benefit.
“It’s similar to when I cast Viggo [Mortensen, in Eastern Promises],” Cronenberg said in an interview. “It’s important for the financing. If Rob hadn’t been famous from Twilight, I couldn’t have had him in the movie.”
Pattinson was suddenly being approached for roles that didn’t just play to his good looks. He was being offered movies, interesting movies, with directors who wanted to get something more out of him.
“After working with Cronenberg it just opened stuff up,” Pattinson said. “People sort of approach you in a different way.”
The offers came, and Pattinson accepted them. He starred as Dennis Stock in the James Dean biopic Life, directed by legendary photographer and director Anton Corbijn. He led Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, which may have been a disaster, but who’d pass up working with Werner Herzog? Nearly unrecognizable under a scraggily beard and spectacles, he sailed down the Amazon as an explorer’s aide-de-camp in Lost City of Z. Pattinson was able to bring interest and money to these projects due to his star power, a situation which of course led to a bit more self-loathing.
“There’s a pressure that comes with feeling like you’ll help with financing, where you think, like, you didn’t really get it because you deserve it,” Pattinson said. “That’s why I like doing work with small budgets, too, because it makes it easier when you really, really believe in something.”
Pattinson isn’t starring in many of these films. He’s not playing James Dean, he’s the guy photographing James Dean. Did anyone in the world see The Rover, the stark, dystopian road movie championed by boutique distributor A24? The box-office receipts suggest the answer is “no.” So many of these movies are released and die without finding an audience, despite the pedigree of the creative teams behind them.
“It’s quite nice doing small parts,” Pattinson said in 2014. “Then the film isn’t totally reliant on what I do in it, so I get to work with who I want to work with and it’s not my fault if it doesn’t make any money.”
It’s the eternal story of Hollywood: Get famous, get rich, and then spend the rest of your career acting in tiny, often aggressively ugly and non-commercial movies that might have only been financed because you’re in them.
It was Pattinson who reached out to Heaven Knows What directors Josh and Ben Safdie about working together. The result was 2017’s Good Time, a scuzzy thriller which featured a nearly unrecognizable Pattinson prowling around New York, trying to help his mentally disabled brother after the two characters failed at robbing a bank.
The Safdie brothers got a much larger budget than they’ve had in the past due to Pattinson’s involvement, and Pattinson was able to disappear into a movie as an underweight, nihilistic thug. Everyone won.
Good Time made a bit over $4 million internationally, which is a very specific way of saying only a few people watched it. It was one of the best movies of 2017. (And you can watch it on Amazon Prime Video, if you’re hooked up.)
Whether people show or not doesn’t matter. Pattinson works in a post-box office world. Good Time brought him even more satisfaction and respect, and Business Insider reported that “the Safdies are taking calls from major stars and Hollywood executives who want the same magic they sprinkled on Pattinson.” Their next movie stars Adam Sandler.
The Zellner brothers’ Damsel brings Pattinson another opportunity to run from his past as Hollywood’s most handsome young star in a tiny, ferocious movie that few are likely to see. Catch it in the theater if you can — it’s a gift when watched with an audience experiencing the story’s shifts and jukes in real time, and in 10 years it’s going to be a cult hit.
A few weeks after release, Damsel’s made around $162,000. It’s one of the better movies of 2018. This is a pattern with Pattinson.
Pattinson’s IMDB page lists two more movies in post-production, three in pre-production and one that’s filming. He’s not slowing down, and each of the movies on his slate looks small and interesting. A few are likely to find a huge audience.
But who cares? Pattinson has his money, and he has a goal: To be weird, to get ugly and violent and to see how long he can keep working with interesting people without finding box office success.
It’s unclear whether financiers still use his name to chase the Twilight audience, but that may not be necessary anymore now that he has such a strong reputation as an actor willing to take smaller roles and find the heart of them. He’s laundering himself across Hollywood, enabling great movies in some Sisyphean attempt to clear his name of blockbuster work like Twilight.
Pattinson started young, blew up early and has been running away every since. And his journey has enabled some of the most interesting, if uneven, cinema of the past few decades. We’ve never been more blessed by an actor deciding he hates his signature character.