How is the return to historical epic filmmaking going for Ridley Scott? With how The Last Duel turned out, Scott might be having a revitalization of his career. The 2010’s have not been consistently strong for him with The Martian being his lone consistently great film (with a few others having love from clusters of people). Scott has proven in the past that he can capture the brutality of war and battle (i.e. Gladiator) and the strong feminine messages of a meaningful film (i.e. Thelma & Louise). Scott, along with the writers of the film (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener), can deliver a film that easily balances both of those aspects while challenging the audience with a complex and effective narrative.
With the script doing plenty to paint an engaging portrait, what does this trio deliver upon with The Last Duel. I could easily insert obligatory “this is like Rashomon” but I do want to make clear that the narrative is structured in a way that is compelling and poignant. This is a tale of three parts or specifically three perspectives. The audience is treated to three chapters each giving the perspective of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). As each chapter passes, the audience must reevaluate their biases and judgments and reframe their interpretation of events. Few films can accomplish such a feat without feeling repetitive or stale. This film is certainly none of those things. But instead, it is thrilling and challenging as you are not quite sure how to feel about each character but by the end you see their truth. At that point, I was thoroughly invested and lost myself to the duel itself.
Speaking of which, does Scott deliver on this titular event? Having seen Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Robin Hood, I knew that he could deliver strong action. But what I was not expecting is one of the more visceral and brutal fights I have seen in film in a long time. The tension of the narrative had been building for two hours up to this point and that frustration has built to a fever pitch. You can feel it in the performances of Damon and Driver as they go to blows. Scott’s direction highlights the brutality and sloppiness of battle. This is not a clean and perfectly choreographed dance of a fight. This is a heavyweight fight that pits an imposing man against a mad dog with intense results. I audibly gasped multiple times and could not look away. This was the perfect payoff to this impressive narrative.
Such great material and direction but do the actors keep their end of the bargain? What is so unique about this film is that each of the main actors must portray their characters in totally different ways based on who is framing the present narrative. Damon is triumphant and honorable in his but feeble and neurotic in Driver’s but latter he is cold and hardened (and honestly scary) in Comer’s. Driver is a revelation…as always. His charisma and presence make for such a compelling character for the audience to be perplexed by and completely disgusted by as well. Comer balances a naïve façade with her truly able character who is strong and vulnerable all at once. Then you have Affleck…he is a delight. Basically, a sloppy frat bro lord, Affleck has plenty of fun and provides plenty of entertainment to the audience. The rest of the cast is a collection of quality and effective character actors doing their thing.
With all this said, what makes The Last Duel a must-see film? The themes that deal with sexual assault and victim blaming, this 14th century tale is timelier than ever. You see stories like this everyday and this epic with impressive production design and incredible performances creates a vehicle to bring these stories to the forefront. Scott delivers another great film in his long and illustrious filmography. Don’t let this runtime intimate you…this is an expertly paced and significant journey worth taking.