The Last Duel
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Drama/History | R | 2 hr 33 min
Exclusively In Theaters
A two-and-a-half-hour historical drama centered on a rape allegation. It doesn’t exactly scream come to the movies, but for those who invest the time, they’ll be rewarded with a rich, sprawling, and impactful epic with a lot to say. And yes, it ends with a duel.
The story is set in 14th century France and told in a three-act structure, with each chapter titled “The Truth According to…” and telling roughly the same story beats from three distinct perspectives. First up is Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), an entitled, dour loner who constantly pushes the blame for his struggles onto other people. Jean and his fellow squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) fight under the same French banner and start out as friends, but eventually fall out, and it comes to a head when Jean’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of rape. Next it shifts to Le Gris, a bright and charismatic man (certainly according to him) who clearly feels he’s in the right in his relationship with Jean and lets his relationship with higher-up Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affle is ck) vault him upward in society. Finally, it shifts to Marguerite, who experiences emotional and physical abuse from both men (and society at large) before the climactic last duel to decide the truth of her allegation unfolds.
Despite each chapter being framed as a version of the truth, the film doesn’t dance around who it wants its audience to believe, and that’s a good thing. Make no mistake, this film stands for believing women who attempt to call out the real consequences of toxic masculinity, and it does so in an extremely impactful way. Director Ridley Scott takes his skill at capturing action and physicality and uses it to show Marguerite’s trauma in a visceral, brutal way that’s extremely effective. Too, the choice to frame the film as a series of perspectives lends the scene, and the fallout afterward up to and including the titular dual, with emotional weight that really pays off.
Comer delivers an amazing performance, especially bouncing between the various perspectives. In the first two chapters, she’s a side character, dancing on the edge of the frame while the focus stays on the testosterone flying back and forth between Jean and Le Gris. But when she’s pushed to the front, her credibility and likeability fly off the screen, and she immediately takes over the narrative. Driver also gives an expectedly excellent performance with a reserved portrayal of a monster who doesn’t believe he’s a monster. It’s a role someone else might have played up for show, but Driver holds himself back, and it ties the entire film together. Affleck (having a blast playing a pompous prick who prefers orgies to managing his government’s affairs) and Damon (sporting a terrible mullet) don’t fit into the period drama setting as well Driver or Comer, but they both deliver performances that work.
The balance of the film’s many tones and genres is quite impressive, and it’s amazing Scott’s still delivering such a complete, epic, and cohesive product at 83 years old. It jumps from war film, to melodrama, to courtroom drama, and back again with ease, at the same time balancing concepts such as engrained cultural misogyny, the corruptive nature of power, and forced narratives onto victims of sexual assault. There is a lot going on here, and in less capable hands, the chances for it to turn into an absolute mess would’ve skyrocketed. Instead, the story bounces from beat to beat seamlessly, and the audience never gets lost, even with a not-insignificant amount of time dedicated to medieval taxing schemes. The score and production design help in this regard (not surprising given Scott’s legendary attention to detail), as they create a medieval world out of whole cloth, and every detail, from the rolling hills in the background dotted with stone castles to the squires’ worn but regal armor, is enveloping and immaculate. And of course, the action sequences are brilliant. The battle sequences are ruthless and inventive (at one point, Jean uses a chainmail boxing glove, ripped from his opponent’s torso, to beat him to death), and the duel is right up there with some of the best action sequences Scott’s every produced.
This film should end up as timeless as its story, even if its destiny is to provide a welcome surprise to those who pull the on demand trigger.