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It is a testament to the continued star power of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck that “The Last Duel” exists. A medieval #MeToo movie from the screenwriting duo whose early career success was steered by Harvey Weinstein? Somewhere in a beige Beverly Hills office, a 20th Century Studios executive will be sweating bullets this weekend as the box office returns roll in.
“The Last Duel” manages to be a lot of things over the course of its 152-minute runtime. It’s a beautifully shot swords-and-shields drama that compares favorably to director Ridley Scott’s previous film, “Gladiator.” It’s also a Middle Ages soap opera, a “Real Housewives” for the chivalrous class. It is a damning indictment of toxic masculinity, but it occasionally asks you to laugh along with the vile creatures on screen.
“The Last Duel” waits almost two hours to reveal its true colors, and the film’s dueling perspectives lead to a story that’s occasionally plodding and muddled. But for the most patient audience members, “The Last Duel” has a lot to offer.
Based on real events chronicled in the 2004 Eric Jager book of the same name, “The Last Duel” begins with a brief preview of the film’s climactic fight: Former friends Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver, “Star Wars”) strap on armor and mount horses to begin a duel to the death sparked by de Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer, “Free Guy”), who accused Le Gris of rape.
The film then jumps back in time to happier days, showing de Carrouges and Le Gris hacking their way through nameless enemies on the battlefield. Damon’s mulleted knight is portrayed as an impulsive but honorable man, one who remains a loyal friend to Le Gris even after his comrade curries favor with the Lord they both serve (played by a scene-stealing Affleck) at de Carrouges’s expense. After all, de Carrouges has a respected family name, a bountiful parcel of land, and a beautiful wife, who de Carrouges treats with a respect uncommon for the time. Or so it seems.
At this point, Scott reveals that “The Last Duel” is a film told 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 the perspective of Le Gris instead of de Carrouges, Damon’s knight is shown to be a stubborn, prideful fool, one who rushes headlong into fights he can’t win and bites the hands that feed him.
Unlike “Rashomon,” which is built on ambiguity and sowing doubt through multiple perspectives, Scott makes clear that the film’s final chapter, told from the perspective of Marguerite, is the only “truth” that matters. Comer finally gets to show off a bit, revealing Marguerite to be much more than the piece of property both men view her as. Marguerite’s chapter also makes clear that both men are far less magnanimous than they see themselves, each dangerous and disgusting in his own way. As “The Last Duel” chugs toward its titular fight, it’s clear that there is no happy ending for its characters, regardless of the duel’s result.
The shifting perspective of “The Last Duel” requires its trio of protagonists to subtly shift the tenor of their performances in each chapter, a task that Driver, Damon, and Comer accomplish with aplomb. Damon, in particular, shows off a dynamic range, with his de Carrouges devolving from a portrait of chivalry to a pig-headed clod who has squandered his family’s good name.
Playing the nominal fourth lead, Affleck chews scenery as Count Pierre d’Alençon, a hard-partying Lothario with a bleach-blond bowl cut whose greatest pleasure outside of drinking and women is delivering devastating insults at de Carrouges’s expense. In one scene, Le Gris seeks d’Alençon’s counsel regarding de Carrouges’s increasingly rash actions, only to find the Count in bed with four women, shouting at his friend to “get in here and get your pants off.”
Whether Scott is helming an Oscar-winning epic (“Gladiator”) or a medieval misfire (“Robin Hood,” “Kingdom of Heaven”), the director’s technical acumen is never in question. “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” doesn’t shy away from the fact that it’s a film centered around a rape. Rather than let the crime occur offscreen, Scott confronts the viewer with the assault directly — not once, but twice. It’s deeply uncomfortable to watch, and does nothing to elaborate on the fact that rape is a horrific crime, no matter what century it occurs in.
While “The Last Duel” allows Marguerite to have the last word, it comes far too late into the film’s 152-minute runtime. When writing the script for “The Last Duel,” Damon, Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”), each handled one chapter, with Damon writing for his character, Affleck for the role of Jacques (which he was originally set to play), and Holofcener as Marguerite. Marguerite’s chapter is the shortest by far, meaning that audiences have to sit through two hours of de Carrouges’s and Le Gris’s sexist perspectives to see a version of Marguerite that isn’t two-dimensional.
At a time when many viewers may still be seeking uplifting, uncomplicated entertainment as a result of the pandemic, “The Last Duel” swings hard in the other direction, offering a complex film that reveals difficult truths. Even if “The Last Duel” falls short in some regards, the uncompromising artistic vision behind it is commendable.
A 152-minute historical drama centered around a 1300s rape trial starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck isn’t going to be for everyone. But if that description isn’t a dealbreaker for you, “The Last Duel” is well worth a trip to the theaters.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 4).
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