**1/2 out of ****
(for strong violence including sexual assault, sexual content, some graphic nudity, and strong language)
Released: October 15, 2021
Runtime: 152 minutes
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Marton Csokas, Alex Lawther
The biggest problem with The Last Duel is that two-thirds of it doesn’t need to be told.
The titular duel-to-the-death at the heart of this real-life medieval epic / chamber piece took place between French knight Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), an influential squire to the powerful, debaucherous nobleman and magistrate Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). It was triggered by Sir Jean’s young wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer, Free Guy) who accused Le Gris of sexual assault. Le Gris vehemently denied the charge, even under oath. In response, Sir Jean literally threw down the gauntlet.
Not only do Damon and Affleck star here, but these two Academy Award winning screenwriters (Good Will Hunting) also co-wrote the script. In seeking to take an incisive angle on how this final French joust came to be, the Boston-bro duo employed a Rashomon approach to explore the events that caused two 14th Century vassals to take up arms against each other in the public arena.
That narrative technique, named after the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film that invented it, re-tells a story from the different perspectives of those who were involved in the events. These subjective viewpoints often contradict each other in subtle ways, thus complicating the story, its characters, and our judgment of them.
Well, at least in theory.
Given how this tale of a rape accusation resonates in our #MeToo era, Damon and Affleck decided that telling it from three different perceptions – Sir Jean’s, Le Gris’s, and Marguerite’s – could illuminate the story, its themes, and how we perceive or respond to similar accusations today.
Told in three parts, Damon wrote Part I (Sir Jean’s perspective), Affleck Part II (Le Gris’s version of events), and Nicole Holofcener (screenwriter of female-centric indies like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Enough Said and Friends With Money), who Matt and Ben brought in to write Part III from Marguerite’s vantage point.
Here’s the problem: the first two acts are by design biased half-truths that essentially amount to lies – and are intended to be perceived that way – while the final act is literally defined as The Truth. Those definitions not only severely undercut the value of the first two acts; it literally makes them pointless.
These belabored, fallacious fibs provide nothing that a straight, traditionally-structured telling couldn’t communicate more economically and effectively (this is a two-and-a-half-hour movie, needlessly so), and it makes enduring them a real test of patience – especially Damon’s first act, which gets way too mired in the weeds of Sir Jean’s unjust financial troubles.
The three parts should be in conversation with each other, challenging each other and, collectively, revealing a truth (but also leaving us to question it). That’s not the case in The Last Duel. Instead, the third act simply disproves and invalidates the first two.
All we’re left with after two acts is what we go in assuming, i.e. that men took unfair (and even violent) advantage of their patriarchal privilege. We also have to stomach the rape not once but twice in extended detail – an unsettling irony, given how this wallows in the brutality it exists to condemn – when mere allusion to the assault would more than suffice before a cut-to-black.
The final act, on the other hand, is compelling from start to finish because it all actually matters. Holofcener’s screenwriting is noticeably superior to Damon’s and Affleck’s as well, from narrative to dialogue, as it’s told more organically and incisively from the psychologies of the characters.
Matt and Ben’s efforts, while earnest and rigorous, are fueled more simply by structured beats, ones wherein characters feel like they’re motives have been reverse-engineered according to the needs of the plot mechanics and thematic soapboxing. The whole of their dramaturgy is generic, their depiction of corrupt patriarchal systems caricatured, and their use of the Rashomon construct little more than a gimmick.
Casting Damon and Affleck also undermines the film’s period verisimilitude. The character interpretations are well-observed, but each actor is simply too American to be believed, not only with their weak Euro accents but even in how they carry themselves. Adam Driver’s dialect isn’t much better but his diction and formidable presence are (noticeably so), having clearly benefitted from Driver’s years of experience on the stage.
Killing Eve star Jodie Comer follows her big screen breakout in Free Guy with another showcase here. Marguerite’s version is credible because Comer is, not simply because we’re told to buy it. She combines fragility, courage, fear and resolve often simultaneously, all into a riveting portrait. One of the most impressive young talents in the world today, Comer is just getting started.
Director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) brings all his visceral moviemaking muscle to bear, from gritty and graphic battle carnage to the superbly mounted titular climax (it really is an exhilarating set piece to behold), even if his penchant for color desaturation and heavy hues on a digital canvas (blue exteriors; gold/sepia interiors) makes for grimy, murky visuals that are drab to look at.
In the end, there’s enough here to validate The Last Duel as a story worth telling, but just not this way.