When The Last Duel tanked at the box office, director Ridley Scott threw a raving hissy fit. He blamed the film’s financial failure on millennials with their iPhones and the Facebook and whatnot. As soon as anybody figures out what the hell he’s talking about, be sure and let me know. Whatever the case, Scott joins Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma in an ever-growing guild of cranky old men, standing on their front porch and speed-dialing the cops because a long-haired kid on a skateboard just buzzed through the neighborhood. No doubt, each legendary director has earned the right to vent their spleen, no matter how petty, jealous, and anachronistic their diatribes come across. Still, I went into The Last Duel with great trepidation. After all, blaming the YouTubes and all the fancy gizmos sounds like a cop-out from somebody who knows their work ain’t up to snuff.
Much to my surprise, Duel turns out to be an above-average film. It’s ambitious, topical, and thoroughly gorgeous. The cinematography, costumes, and production design should be ushered right up to the front of the Oscar line. Every performance is top-notch, if you can get past a few familiar American accents in a very French setting. (And for some viewers, that might be a Godzilla-sized if.) So, why did this movie go over in theaters like a lead balloon? I have a theory, but we’ll circle around to that in a bit.
First, let’s break down Duel‘s sweeping story. It’s 14th Century France. Much like Monty Python’s Holy Grail, just about everybody this side of the king has shit all over them. We open on two men, plunk in the center of a packed jousting arena. Jean (Matt Damon) and Jacques (Adam Driver) glare at each other. They mount their steeds and grip their lances. When the word comes, they charge, their galloping horses panting steam into the frigid air.
Scott cuts away just as the men are about to spear each other. At this point, Duel trifurcates into a series of Rashomon-style flashbacks, each showing the same horrific crime from the perspective of a different lead character. We begin with Jean’s angle, and travel back to a time when Jean and Jacques were soldiers and brothers, locked somewhere in the Hundred Years’ War. They have developed a mutual respect and stoic affection for one another.
These bonds begin to break when Jacques enters the orbit of Pierre (Ben Affleck), a wealthy, hedonistic baron. It seems that Pierre needs a generous helping of taxes and bribes to fund his appetites for wine, women, and war. With that in mind, he employs Jacques to do his dirty work, collecting debts and doling out beatings to anyone who doesn’t pay. As Jean is a man of land and title, it’s only a matter of time before Jacques arrives to put the squeeze on him. From Jean’s point of view, their exchange is awkward, but respectful. Jacques offers to reason with Pierre, and perhaps relieve Jean of some of this burden.
Unfortunately, this begins a pattern, in which Pierre slowly chips away at Jean’s wealth and reputation, thus pushing him to the emotional and spiritual brink. Jean attempts to salvage his means by marrying into an important family, albeit one with a damaged legacy. Marguerite (Jodie Comer) is young and beautiful, and her dowry of acerage supplies Jean with a new fortune. Of course, Pierre and Jacques make plans to deprive Jean of both love and land.
This leads to a pivotal scene, in which a tearful Marguerite tells Jean she was raped by Jacques. We then see events before, during, and after this assault, through the eyes of Jean, Jacques, and Marguerite, respectively. Characters come across differently in each chapter: Jean is noble and well-respected in his own mind, while Jacques’ recollections paint him as impish and pitiful. Jean and Marguerite depict Jacques as a savage bully, driven by an unquenchable lust for women and power. Jacques imagines that Marguerite was more passively receptive to his advances than she will admit. In every flashback, however, what Jacques does to her is unquestionably rape.
Denied justice by Pierre, Jean makes an appeal to God, and petitions for a trial by combat. The two men will duel, and the victor will dictate the verdict. This has unforeseen consequences for all involved, but especially Marguerite.
With a runtime of 153 minutes, The Last Duel is an epic film built around an intimate crime. Ridley Scott handles both aspects with considerable skill: We see incredible shots of ornate castles and banquet halls, and well-staged recreations of massive medieval battles. At the same time, much of Scott’s drama occurs in close quarters, whether it’s near a crackling fire or in the hushed confines of a dark corridor. In both cases, Scott gives us the unfailing sense that we are present for genuine moments in history.
All three leads do an outstanding job of supplying this heavy-going story with much of its lifeblood. Damon effectively conveys Jean’s uneasy blend of strength, pride, and near-fatal petulance. Meanwhile, Driver is downright brilliant as the ruthless warrior who wavers between moral-ambiguity and all-out monstrousness. Despite all this star power from Damon and Driver, it’s Comer who supplies the film with its brightest light. Her Marguerite is wise beyond her years and empowered ahead of her time, although both traits could lead to her eventual doom. Comer’s combination of brains, charm, and aching
€!vulnerability makes her Duel‘s most compelling character, and the screenplay (Damon and Affleck’s first together since Good Will Hunting) wisely saves her POV for last.
So, why did this movie bottom out at the box office? I suspect a mix of three factors: First off, it’s a heavy dose of history, and that can be an instant turn-off. Next, Duel covers some dark, intense subject matter. (The very structure of the script means we go back to the rape scene more than once.) Current events are dark and intense, so a movie like this might be a bit too much. On a superficial level, the trailers feature Damon with a clunky King of the Hill mullet that might invite derision, thus undermining the film’s serious tone.
That’s what I suspect, anyway. Or, it really could be these damn kids and their Buzzfeeds. Either way, I will say that The Last Duel delivers a gripping, emotional experience, and it deserves to find an audience. This film is well worth the rental, but I can’t stress this enough: You’ll have to be in the right mood for it.
153 min. R. On Demand.