The Last Duel (2021)

Dir. Ridley Scott. Starring Jodie Comer, Adam Driver, Matt Damon

Spoilers, I guess…this is still a recent-ish release.

The title cards separating the film’s chapters are not subtle about what they’re after. Chapter 1 begins after five or six minutes of prologue. It belongs to Jean de Carrouges (Damon), and the screen says: “The truth according to JEAN DE CARROUGES.” Chapter 2 starts maybe forty-five minutes into the movie. It belongs to Jacques Le Gris (Driver), and the screen says: “The truth according to JACQUES LE GRIS.” Chapter 3 belongs to Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), and the screen says “The truth according to THE LADY MARGUERITE.” When the words “the truth” are allowed to fade last from the screen, emphasizing that Marguerite’s version of this story is the most accurate one, we are nearly ninety minutes into a one hundred and fifty minute film. It’s impossible not to see some Rashomon in the structure of The Last Duel, to say nothing of the actual content. Both take place in the Middle Ages, though The Last Duel takes place hundreds of years after Rashomon, and both center on the rape of a warrior-noble’s wife. Unfortunately for The Last Duel, it has misread two of the precepts of Rashomon. First, that Akira Kurosawa’s film is under ninety minutes from tip to tail, which adds to the intensity of our uncertainty. The briskness of Rashomon is one of its virtues; it adds to our sense that the events of the story are going to be supplanted by another story. Second, that we can’t actually know the truth. Rashomon ends with an epilogue after the woodcutter’s private testimony, and while his account is the one that we are supposed to see as the least biased, at that point in the film we know better than to trust that even this decent man has the precise truth of what happened in that grove. In other words, Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto don’t drop “the truth” on Takashi Shimura’s recollection.

I come not to bury The Last Duel for not being Rashomon, because that’s about as worthless as burying Nine for not being 8 1/2. What bothers me about The Last Duel is that its structure is a gimmick. The architecture of the screenplay for Rashomon is purposeful because the key to that story is in its lament that truth cannot be relayed objectively. The architecture of the screenplay for The Last Duel (written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener) is one which erases the first sixty percent of the film because it is after a grand reveal in Marguerite’s section. All it took to evaporate the majority of the picture was the two extra seconds that the words “the truth” lingered on the screen. This is not a twist with a rapid set of updated flashbacks, like we get in Vertigo or Fight Club. This is a section of the movie that exists to undo what comes before it, and I struggle to understand the purpose of a movie out to negate itself.

What’s especially vexing about this structure is that there’s no particular reason that the story couldn’t have just…been told. We see a dance that Marguerite and Jean do together multiple times. In Jacques’ recollection of the dance, Marguerite spends the whole of it smiling at him while her husband isn’t looking. In Marguerite’s, she does it once while she’s explaining to Jean that sometimes mollifying people is a better strategy than threatening them. What kills me is that in the Marguerite story, we still cut to Jacques and see his interpretation of the smile; he looks at that smile Marguerite gives him and thinks that it’s a come-on. We didn’t need a special chapter from the mind of Jacques Le Gris to accomplish that. The film has Adam Driver in it, who is more than capable of nailing a reaction shot. The Last Duel is written in a way that shows off the screenplay more than the film; the stars are not Matt Damon and Ben Affleck the actors, but Damon and Affleck (and Holofcener) the Oscar-winning screenwriters. To believe in the necessity of this structure, you have to believe one of two things. Either you have to believe that this is the best way to show that different people remember things differently and for their own benefit (it is not, and my evidence is every courtroom movie), or you have to believe that the audience wouldn’t come to the conclusion that these three people view the same events differently. Given that somewhere in the world, some guy named Steve is telling some woman named Jessica that he reminded her to get more coffee at Wal-Mart and Jessica is saying that he definitely never mentioned that, that second option is pretty vacant too.

To be sure, this film has all of the problems of every Ridley Scott film in the twenty-first century: didactic and dull shot selections, a painfully monochromatic color palette, a bloated feeling that most people associate with eating too much cheese. All of these are cries for the same reaction: “Take me seriously!” The screenplay is working on much the same principle, with the allusionary qualities which are not limited just to Kurosawa. The timbre of a Last Duel review is in whether or not the reviewer notes the jurist who is presumably a forbear of Todd Akin; a woman will not become pregnant from rape, the jurist says, which is “science.” It’s an eye-rolling line which doesn’t even the grant the premise of the film—isn’t the duel about God deciding who’s innocent?—but which says much the same thing as the benighted Dariusz Wolski’s photography. “Take me seriously,” The Last Duel says, “for I can connect this event from the 14th Century to the events of the present time.” One would be more inclined to take a film seriously which doesn’t practically put that on a card before Chapter Three. More succinctly, I wanted to tell the film, “You first.”

This is a very good cast. Matt Damon has never been all that good as an everyman, and Jean de Carrouges is definitely not an everyman. The mullet is eye-catching—it reminds me of Brent Spiner saying that the wig he wore for Independence Day really made the part for him—but what makes Damon’s performance strong here is the energy he gives to making Jean an unlikable human being. He is decent in a lot of ways. He has enormous courage and a real belief in stuff like duty and patriotism and all that jazz, and that’s admirable. At least, it’s the most admirable thing about him. He’s also quick-tempered and small, relentlessly egocentric in ways that are perhaps even more obnoxious than Jacques’ egocentrism. Jacques convinces himself that Marguerite wants him sexually, which is never true, but this is the way of all men. Jean, in one of the better bits of writing from Holofcener, pretty clearly sees Jacques’ rape of Marguerite as the same principle as a random stallion mounting a prize mare. Damon’s always been better as this smug SOB, who comes in such flavors as “Southie” in Good Will Hunting, “Southie Venti” in The Departed, and “Varmint” in True Grit. It’s a strong performance, and as he’s our way into the film, it’s arguably the most necessary. Jodie Comer is triple-cast in The Last Duel like Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano or Deborah Kerr in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, for Marguerite is very different in each story. There’s somehow less to the character than there is for Jean or Jacques, because that’s the risk a writer takes when s/he makes a character all reaction and no action, but Comer meets the expectation throughout. As ever, Adam Driver is great, continuing a hot streak which has been going on since 2016. As modern as Comer plays Marguerite in her section, Driver is playing the 14th Century Brock Turner, adding in the impunity that comes with being someone who knows that he has the boss on his side. Ben Affleck, playing the boss, Pierre d’Alençon, is basically doing what Jared Leto does in House of Gucci. He’s decided that he is in a movie where the bleached, fratty delivery of “He’s no fuckin’ fun” counteracts the dirge that’s sounding throughout the rest of the film, and while I admire his commitment to the bit that Pierre is a medieval bro/member of a boy band, it only reminds that The Last Duel suffers from airlessness in so many other elements.

It’s a shame that the film has such a crippling screenplay problem, because when things actually happen in The Last Duel, a lot of the pretensions slide away in favor of what’s actually interesting. Ridley Scott, for all his many faults, still has a way with action sequences. The duel between Jean and Jacques, which sounds like a Monty Python bit when you use their Christian names instead of their surnames, is a gory little affair. Little snowflakes trickle down from the sky. The camera is unsparing about some gruesome details, or, even better, lets your imagination do the work for you. Jean wins the duel despite a pretty gnarly hole in his leg when he puts a dagger through Jacques’ mouth. The blood spurts darkly and that business feels appropriately gruesome. One feels that duel more than watches it. There are hard blows and near misses, and it gets at a truth about combat during that time: a soldier did better to bludgeon an enemy to death rather than poke holes in him. A little ironically for a guy who made a Robin Hood movie, The Last Duel serves as a counterpoint to all the fancy fencing we’ve seen various medieval Robin Hoods and Ivanhoes do in the pictures. The duel itself is not rapid and courtly. It begins with multiple broken lances, puts multiple horses on the ground as dead as Jacques will be, and emphasizes that the point of this duel is to beat the other guy’s brains or other internal organs into something even mushier. This duel has Marguerite’s life riding on it as well—Jean has opted for a trial by combat knowing that if he’s defeated, Marguerite will be torched for “lying,” a decision he did not clue his wife in on—and so we care deeply about the stakes. Even if the first two chapters of the film didn’t exist, hyuk hyuk hyuk, we would still find both Jean and Jacques deeply repulsive people. Even though the more satisfying conclusion for us would be to watch Jean and Jacques kill one another, we can’t quite hope for that; we have to treat Jacques like Duke and root against him on general principle.

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