MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Historical Drama/ Stars: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Nathaniel Parker, Sam Hazeldine, Michael McElhatton, Alex Lawther, Marton Csokas, Željko Ivanek, Clive Russell, Adam Nagaitis, Bosco Hogan, Clare Dunne, Caoimhe O’Malley/ Runtime: 153 minutes
I think it is fairly safe to say that there is not just one Ridley Scott out there in the universe of movie magic. Rather, I would go so far as to say there is a pair of this iconic film helmer out there in existence. By that I mean there is Ridley the Auteur and then we also get Ridley the Director of Movies for the Common Person. Each of these distinct individuals has given us his fair amount of iconic movies, cult classics, and downright colossal bombs. It is with that in mind that we see Auteur Ridley deliver Blade Runner in 1982, but also gave us 1492: Conquest of Paradise which the less said about the better. Meanwhile Common Man Director Ridley is responsible for such gems as Gladiator and The Martian, but also G.I. Jane and Exodus: Gods and Kings. However there are moments where this pair do come together to make some movies that are truly spectacular. Indeed Alien from 1979 is just a masterpiece on all counts, All the Money in the World is a riveting thriller from 2017 that feels more like a passion project, and Black Hawk Down is a visceral and riveting war film that was filmed with an artist’s eye. Suffice it to say that this distinct dichotomy is one that has weaved its way throughout Scott’s time as a film helmer and it’s perhaps the key reason that the announcement of any new movie he is at the helm of is viewed with a mix of both unease and also intrigue. Indeed you are never quite sure that, upon completion of the film, you will walk away from it feeling satisfied, riveted, completely baffled, or needing the person you took to see the movie to wake you up because you fell fast asleep around the 30 minute mark. This of course brings us to the first of a pair of Ridley Scott movies due for release in 2021, a drama set in medieval times known as The Last Duel that deals with the final royally-permitted duel in the country of France due to a horrific accusation of rape. Suffice it to say then that you might be forgiven for going into this thinking that this movie might be extremely complicated to say nothing of an immensely difficult chore to sit through. Yet intriguingly that is not the case. Rather, this slice of cinematic pie is actually one that somehow turns out to be a fairly engaging, and helmed and performed fairly well which is saying quite a lot given how disturbing and unnerving this material is especially in what the world has come to know as the MeToo era.
The plot is as follows: At the core of this slice of cinematic pie are a trinity of characters. They are Jean de Carrouges who is a member of the French noble class and who is regarded in equal amount for his loyalty to the throne, his skill as a warrior, and his stubborn and downright bullheaded manner. We also get Jean’s wife Marguerite who is the lovely and decent daughter of a dishonored fellow noble who Jean takes as his bride both out of some degree of love, but mostly in an attempt to make his financial dilemmas disappear. Then there is Jacques Le Gris, a man who is both a comrade of Jean’s in combat, but also a squire who makes his way up in the world at the cost of his friendship with Jean due to his being brought into the inner fold of the slimy, shallow, and downright lecherous lord they serve, one Count Pierre d’Alençon as both hired muscle of sorts as well as someone he trusts deeply. Thus this slice of cinematic pie gets underway as we first see the dissolving of the bond between Jean and Jacques due to the issues of money, envy, and status. Indeed we see that, thanks in large part to Jacques’ immense loyalty to Pierre, he gets both a title that Jean felt was his to inherit as well as land that Jean was promised when he married his wife. Of course, a severely irked Jean time and time again makes it known to Pierre how infuriating it is to see Jacques acquire everything he feels should have most assuredly been his. Of course it should come as no surprise to learn this just further increases the divide between Jean and the slimy lord. Things soon come to a boiling point however when Marguerite makes it clear to Jean that whilst he was trying to get his pay for his time in combat Jacques showed up at their estate and, following a struggle, proceeded to pin her down and take advantage of her mercilessly. Suffice it to say that Jean does not take this news fairly well. In fact, he not only is infuriated, but he also decides to take this matter all the way to no less a person than King Charles and presents King Charles with an intriguing way to settle the matter. That of course being the duel that makes up the film’s title. Though in all fairness I guess a duel isn’t exactly the best word to describe this fight. Rather, I would say that it is to be a visceral, gritty, and downright bloody trial by combat that has not only the reputations, but also the lives of our trinity of players all hanging in the balance….
Now right off the bat I feel you should know dear reader that we are literally getting a story which deals with everything that led up to the titular duel from the point-of-view of Jean, Jacques, and finally Marguerite. This also explains why this film was penned by a trinity of writers consisting of not only the aforementioned Affleck and Damon, but also someone by the name of Nicole Holofcener as we see that the men penned the 2 chapters from the perspective of the male characters and Holofcener was given the opportunity to carve out the female chapter. Yes it may on first blush look like a very Vantage Point or Go!-style attempt in discovering that elusive and pesky devil that is the truth, but when you see that each of this movie’s trinity of main chapters all start with a subtitle that says “The truth according to” you realize that these different perspectives are all giving us the same narrative with the key exception being that we start to see things through different lenses and realize we might not have been seeing them for as they really were. As a result, what looked like a rash yet courageous assault on a pack of enemy forces in Jean’s regaling is then shown in Jacques’s to be a moronic falling into a horrific trap set by the enemy. Meanwhile in Jacques’s take on what occurred, we see him initially and valiantly attempt to stand up for his not exactly brilliant buddy Jean to the treacherous Pierre, but what Jacques thinks Jean should be satisfied with getting are viewed by his friend as a slap in the face to his service. Finally, we also see that Jean’s fury at this rape charge is presented to us from his perspective as an issue of his wife’s honor is then revealed through Marguerite’s point of view to be driven just as much by anger towards her for making him go down this road. Indeed to Jean she is not a human being. Rather, she is property that, no matter how badly it may look, is willing to have a mind of her own. Meanwhile to her, Jean is not a loving husband. Rather, he is a crude and bullheaded storm she must try her best to ride out and please day by day. Yet even though the shades of tone and perspective change as we switch from the three different perspectives, but the truth of what happened is rarely if ever in question. Thus we are not viewing a deconstruction of a series of events that eventually lead up to a duel that is as visceral and as riveting as anything Ridley has ever put to celluloid. Rather, we are watching an outright condemnation and it’s no lie to say that every single male character is up on the proverbial chopping block for one reason or another.
The other big component working in this film’s favor would undoubtedly have to be the quartet of powerhouse performances at the heart of this movie. This starts with Matt Damon in one of the more intriguing roles he has played in his career. This is because whilst Damon has long been regarded as one of the more likable performers out there, I can safely say that his character Jean in this is most assuredly not likable by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed equal parts belligerent, controlling, spiteful, and fiercely determined to avenge even the slightest perceived injustice against him, Jean is the kind of guy that gives the genuinely good guys in the world a bad name. Yet when it comes to the climatic duel we still root for him. Is it because there is perhaps a shred of decency to him? Maybe. Is it because he’s the better of the 2 men fighting? Perhaps. Is it because the typically likeable Matt Damon is portraying him? Honestly I think that is the best reason out of all 3. Yet even with that in mind, there is no denying that this is one heck of a turn from Damon in this movie. I also really liked the work done in this by Adam Driver even if this kind of slimy and slithery antagonist is one that we have seen from him before (Kylo Ren anyone?). Yet out of everyone, the 2 most delightful surprises would have to be the work done by both Jodie Comer and Ben Affleck in their respective parts. Indeed the character of Marguerite is at the core of this film and Comer’s take on her is one that is truly riveting and powerful. Indeed here is a woman who knows what has really occurred yet has no choice, but to sit back and observe as the 2 men squaring off because of her try to mold what she went through in a way that makes them look better than the other. It also doesn’t help that the stakes in this duel are higher for her since if her accused rapist wins the day then the law will look at that as a sign that she made the whole thing up and she will be killed for it. Suffice it to say that, in a part set in an era where women were expected to be seen and not heard, Comer gives this woman mountains to say no matter if it’s verbally or nonverbally by way of looks she gives or body language she gives off. Indeed it really truly is one heck of a performance from an actress that is quickly showing she is a rising star in the world of movie magic. This brings us to Affleck in the role of the intriguingly slimy Count Pierre and I must confess: this is a character that in the wrong hands could have turned bad. Like really bad. Yet in Affleck’s hands this character turns into a guy you can’t help, but love to hate due to his slimy, chauvinistic, and just plain lecherous behavior. Indeed the moment we hear Pierre reveal that the reason he loathes Jean so much is simply because “He’s no f***ing fun,” we immediately become aware that this slimy toad is going to do everything in his power to make life immensely difficult for him and his wife and Affleck just takes this supporting character and makes him work powerfully in the grand scheme of things and turns in one heck of a performance as a result.
All in all from phenomenal work done behind the camera and downright electrifying work done by a group of clearly talented thespians in front of the camera, The Last Duel is one of the more unexpectedly riveting cinematic outings I have had the pleasure of watching some time. Indeed it would have been incredibly easy (if not slightly lazy) on the part of the filmmaking team to transform this slice of cinematic pie into a simple saga dealing with rape vengeance, but thankfully that is not the direction the filmmaking team and the cast choose to go with this particular film. That’s because when you get past the theatrics and the titular skirmish, you’re able to see that this film is a surprisingly immersive and quite melancholic analysis about both the lasting repercussions a sexual crime can have on the victim, and also the tragically twisted reasons why so many women sadly choose not to speak out and subsequently get justice for the wrong that has been inflicted upon them. Indeed The Last Duel shows us that even when these actions do get tried legally, there is little sense of triumph for the victim at the end of the day. A fact that is and always will be relevant no matter if the sexual crime occurred in the 14th century or if it happened not even 14 minutes ago today. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Last Duel “2021” a solid 4 out of 5.