The Last Duel (2021)
The Last Duel (2021)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 32 min.

Release Date: October 15th, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Marton Csokas, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Zeljko Ivanek, Nathaniel Parker, Tallulah Haddon, Bryony Hannah

 


 

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n late 14th-century France, squires Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) fight courageously alongside each other in battle for the honor of the King. But with his reckless strategies and impetuous temperament, Carrouges soon falls out of favor with his greedy liege, Count Pierre d’Alencon (Ben Affleck), while Le Gris rises in status and wealth. The two warriors’ friendship ends decidedly when the Count gifts to Le Gris a precious parcel of Sir Robert de Thibouville’s (Nathaniel Parker) land, meant as dowry for the marriage between Robert’s daughter Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and Carrouges. The rivals soon thereafter become mortal enemies when Marguerite accuses Le Gris of rape, leading to a misguided yet monumental duel as an unequivocal determiner of veracity.

Opening with shots of massive crowds, sprawling landscapes, elaborate costumes, and countless props (including armor and weaponry), all decorated with a sensible amount of filth, the stage is set for a pivotal duel, complete with the sonorous collision of jousts and shields. But this is rudely interrupted by the title, for this is not actually the beginning at all; it is, of course, merely a sneak peek of the climax. The actual start, however, is an even more rattling confrontation at Limoges – demonstrating director Ridley Scott’s proficient, favored, filmic inclusion of medieval violence, brimming with throat-cutting, sword-thrusting, and axe-heaving chaos, as riders are thrown from their horses into a cacophony of chainmail-covered carnage.

And even this clash segues into yet another bloodthirsty, pernicious campaign, signaling that Scott must grab audiences from the get-go and exhaust his penchant for Middle Ages combat before digging into the main premise. As it turns out, much of the remainder of the picture has nothing to do with waging war, so it’s fitting that all the large-scale action – followed by drinking and revelry and fine maidens – should be depicted in the first 15 minutes, encompassing all of the knights-in-shining-armor derring-do that might be expected (particularly from the auteur behind “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” and “Gladiator”). The first act goes a touch further, detailing the politics of the era, as well as the wheeling and dealing between lords and squires, the formation of rivalries, and dowry negotiations. Part of the meat of this movie involves powerful, influential men and the ways in which they manipulate one another, engage in backstabbing, and dismiss those they consider lower than themselves.

Visually, the locations are atmospheric and breathtaking – from dense forests to spacious castles – always blanketed in grime and groom but nevertheless photographed with precision. This all certainly looks and feels authentic, save for Affleck’s role, as he’s never quite able to convince that he’s a genuine product of the 1300s. But the sights aren’t the focus for long, as the plot shifts to an examination of the medieval justice system, exploring how grievances are lodged, how wrongs might be righted (or restitutions rendered), how truth is determined when no evidence is collected, and what consequences await the guilty. “God will spare those who tell the truth.”

More fascinating still is the role of women in this ancient world, their purpose as heir-bearers and their limited opportunities for other household involvements, their status primarily as property, and the assumption that they mustn’t complain about stark inequalities and intolerances (including the “science” behind sexual acts). It’s a rare look into just how tough and horrifying life was for many women of the time. But the most potent revelations arise during the last act, highlighted by a penultimate trial full of probing questions, as the first two-thirds of the movie retreads familiar territory through a plot device that mirrors Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (in which the same event is told through different, often contradictory perspectives, here divided into three distinct chapters). The repetition is largely engaging (though the runtime is a bit daunting), adding new information and revisiting other items to raise doubts as to their reliability, appearing most striking when choice lines of dialogue are attributed to different characters, when subtler actions are undertaken to alternate effects (omissions are just as staggering), and when certain happenings are visualized rather than verbally explained (or vice versa). “The common mind has no capacity for this sort of nuance.”

As supposed truths are reshaped by varying viewpoints, it’s evident that “The Last Duel” relies heavily on its superb cast of actors, with Damon, Driver, and Comer delivering exceptional performances. Despite returning once again to the titular, powerhouse showdown (and what a nail-biting finale it is), the bulk of the picture is an emotional, riveting drama of distorted facts, twisted justifications, and weighty outcomes, hinging on a societal bravery that matches up to the intensity of the battlefield. And it’s better for its attention to those themes than for its seemingly obligatory sequences of wartime death and destruction. “The truth does not matter.”

– The Massie Twins

  • 7/10