Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel is that rare occasion in which I went into a movie nearly blind. Sure, the credentials behind the movie were plain to see. But seeing as I’m one who isn’t too interested in history, the story wasn’t familiar to me. Hell, I even thought that the “duel” that the title was referring to was the one where two guys point guns at one another. What’s perhaps even more embarrassing is I have seen the trailer… so yeah, definitely missed the boat on that. Being left in the dark, The Last Duel begins somewhat slowly, but finds its footing about 30 minutes in and turns out to be a well made, compelling and somewhat unsettling story.
Ridley Scott is a lot like Clint Eastwood. Not in that he can act, or that they even make similar movies… so, he’s not really like Clint Eastwood. But he’s like Eastwood in that the guy is in his mid-80’s, and he has another movie, House of Gucci, being released next month. In other words, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The Last Duel, his first movie of 2021, is a pretty entertaining one, telling an interesting story that is told… interestingly. The film also marks the first screenwriting collaboration of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck since they won their Oscar for Good Will Hunting, which is also pretty cool (they co-wrote the screenplay with Academy Award nominee Nicole Holofcener). The story they tell here is a pretty important one, not just because of the way it echoes modern society but also because it’s one that probably isn’t well known. Well, now I know it, and I’m thankful to them for making it.
So, to the story at hand. Set during the Hundred Years War, the film tells the true story of Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon, reuniting with Scott after The Martian). Jean is an important figure in France, and when he returns from an extended trip, Marguerite tells him that she was raped by one Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who, with his right hand man Pierre d’Alencon (Affleck), have more than a beef with Jean. So upon hearing this news, Jean takes them to court, and King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) announces that they are to settle this dispute in a duel. To further that, if Jean loses, then Marguerite is to be burnt to a crisp.
So yeah, I was totally clueless about pretty much all of the plot details in The Last Duel, and was basically going off of Scott and the starpower he had in his corner. For the first 30 minutes, I thought I had made a mistake. Certain costume dramas just don’t appeal to me- hell, even as a Ridley Scott fan, I missed out on Kingdom of Heaven but was bored by his Robin Hood. Something about this type of movie doesn’t always appeal, and maybe it’s because I didn’t know what this movie was about to begin with, and I had also had a long day, but I was really afraid that The Last Duel was going to be a long two and a half hour sit. I admired the look, production design and scope of it. But it felt like a lot. Lots of fancy French names are dropped, the timeline surely jumps around a lot, there’s battles, there’s talk of land and trade and I couldn’t stop yawning.
But then, the premise of the film came into view, and suddenly, I was back in the game. Because what was also something of a surprise was the way in which The Last Duel tells its story. The film is essentially told in three different chapters- one from Jean’s perspective, one from Jacques’, and one from Marguerite’s. It is about the time that we get to chapter 2 where The Last Duel achieved liftoff, and you realize just how interesting the movie really is. It’s interesting in the way that the characters change within different perspectives, as do the performances. The film is also playful with its changes in detail and, despite a subject matter that is somewhat grim, there is even a bit of humor sprinkled into the proceedings. Most of which comes from Affleck, who surprisingly sorta steals the show at times.
The performances are all strong, but in interesting ways. Each actor is playing their respective roles, but depending on the perspective, they’re playing time in different ways with each chapter. Damon (who, along with this summer’s Stillwater, constantly reminds us of how talented he really is), for example, plays Jean as heroic from his point of view, an irritant from Jacques, but it’s Marguerite’s, we’re told, that is the truth. It’s just interesting to see it all unfold. Driver has the ability to be both charming and monstrous, as does Affleck (but he’s also pretty damn funny). But it’s Comer who serves as the film’s emotional center, and seeing as this is the second movie I’ve seen her in in the last two months (after the so-so but pretty successful Free Guy) I imagine she’s here to stay.
I liked this movie quite a bit, maybe more than its 3-star rating suggests. Scott is still a helluva filmmaker who can craft a compelling story, and he’s done so here. Sure, the accents and the wigs are wacky, but like, would you really want to hear them doing a faux French accent? The film’s #metoo parallels and connections might not be necessarily subtle, but the film is effective and convincing. Perhaps all of this worked for me because I didn’t really know what the movie was about to begin with, but for two and a half hours, Scott and company manage to make this fabulously expensive movie sing, despite my initial reservations.
The United States Box office is in a really interesting position at the moment. It feels like almost every week since the end of May has had the release of a major movie, and it’s certainly a smart ploy to get everyone back in the theatre. So releasing The Last Duel as a wide release instead of a limited seems like a curious move. This obviously leads up to a big duel and it has huge names attached to it, but The Last Duel is an R-rated, great looking, big budgeted film centered around a hugely adult subject. It doesn’t feel like a Saturday night movie where friends will gather together to see it, and considering that that’s what the majority of major releases have been, let me just say that I really admire 20th Century Studios (formerly known as 20th Century Fox) for throwing their chips in on it. It seems like that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, and lord knows if this film (seeing as its up against Halloween Kills, also obviously for adults but surely kiddos will go for it too) will make any money. But by golly, it’s certainly worth your time.