It’s a testament to the continued star power of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that “The Last Duel” exists. A medieval #MeToo film by the screenwriting duo whose early-career success was directed by Harvey Weinstein? Somewhere in a beige Beverly Hills office, an executive from 20th Century Studios will be sweating this weekend as the box office returns arrive.
“The Last Duel” manages to get a lot going during its 152 minutes of runtime. It’s a beautifully shot sword and shield drama that compares favorably to director Ridley Scott’s previous film, “Gladiator.” It is also a soap opera from the Middle Ages, a “real housewife” for the knightly class. It’s a damning indictment of toxic masculinity, but it sometimes asks you to laugh with the vile creatures on screen.
“The Last Duel” waits nearly two hours to reveal its true colors, and the film’s dueling prospects lead to a tale at times laborious and confusing. But for the more patient members of the audience, “The Last Duel” has a lot to offer.
Based on actual events recounted in Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name, “The Last Duel” begins with a brief look at the film’s climactic fight: former friends Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, “Star Wars”) strap on armor and ride horses to begin a duel to the death unleashed by Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer, “Free Guy”), who accused Le Gris of rape.
The film then goes back in time to happier days, showing de Carrouges and Le Gris making their way through unnamed enemies on the battlefield. Damon’s mule knight is described as an impulsive but honorable man, who remains a staunch friend of Le Gris even after his comrade gains favor from the Lord they both serve (played by an Affleck who steals the scene) at the expense of de Carrouges. After all, de Carrouges has a respected surname, an abundant plot of land, and a beautiful wife, whom de Carrouges treats with unusual respect for the time. Or so it seems.
At this point, Scott reveals that “The Last Duel” is a film narrated in the style of Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” a triptych in which each of the three chapters is told from the perspective of a different character. With the story now being told from Le Gris’s perspective instead of de Carrouges, Damon’s knight is revealed to be a stubborn and haughty fool, who rushes headlong into fights he can’t win and bites them down. hands that feed it.
Unlike “Rashomon,” which is built on ambiguity and sowing doubt across multiple perspectives, Scott makes it clear that the film’s final chapter, told from Marguerite’s perspective, is the only “truth” that matters. Comer finally gets to show off a bit, revealing that Marguerite is much more than property that the two men consider her to be. Marguerite’s chapter also makes it clear that the two men are much less magnanimous than they see each other, each dangerous and disgusting in his own way. As “The Last Duel” progresses towards its titular fight, it’s clear that there is no happy ending for its characters, regardless of the outcome of the duel.
The changing perspective of “The Last Duel” forces its trio of protagonists to subtly alter the tenor of their performances in each chapter, a task that Driver, Damon and Comer accomplish with aplomb. Damon, in particular, shows a dynamic range, with his Carrouges shifting from a portrait of chivalry to a pig’s-head clod that has squandered his family’s good name.
Playing the fourth nominal role, Affleck chews landscapes as Count Pierre d’Alençon, a partying Lothario with a bleached blond bowl cut whose greatest pleasure outside of drink and women is to deliver insults devastating at the expense of de Carrouges. In one scene, Le Gris seeks AlenThe lesson advice regarding de Carrouges’ increasingly reckless actions, only to find the count in bed with four women, shouting at his friend to “come in here and take your pants off.”
Whether Scott directs an Oscar-winning epic (“Gladiator”) or a medieval dud (“Robin Hood”, “Kingdom of Heaven”), the director’s technical acumen is never questioned. “The Last Duel” looks gorgeous on screen, with scenes of slate gray or muted blue serving as the perfect backdrop for sprays of red blood.
“The Last Duel” does not hesitate to say that it is a film centered on a rape. Rather than letting the crime happen offscreen, Scott directly confronts the viewer with the assault – not once, but twice. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch and does nothing to explain the fact that rape is a horrific crime, regardless of the century in which it occurs.
While “The Last Duel” allows Marguerite to have the last word, it comes way too late in the film’s 152-minute runtime. While writing the screenplay for “The Last Duel,” Damon, Affleck and Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), Each dealt with a chapter, with Damon writing for his character, Affleck for the role of Jacques ( originally intended to play) and Holofcener as Marguerite. Marguerite’s chapter is by far the shortest, meaning the audience has to sit for two hours of the sexist perspectives of de Carrouges and Le Gris to see a version of Marguerite that is not two-dimensional.
In an era when many viewers may still be looking for uplifting, straightforward entertainment in the wake of the pandemic, “The Last Duel” swings the other way, delivering a complex film that reveals difficult truths. Even though “The Last Duel” falls short in some ways, the uncompromising artistic vision behind it is commendable.
Should we watch “The Last Duel”?
A 152-minute historical drama centered around a 1300s rape trial starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck won’t be for everyone. But if that description isn’t a snap for you, “The Last Duel” is well worth a trip to the theater.
Evaluation: 3 stars (out of 4).
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