The Last Duel (2021)
20th Century Studios
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, & Nicole Holofcener
Starring Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck
The opening of The Last Duel is as perfect a tone setter as you can hope for. We begin on a cold, late December day shot with beautiful starkness Dariusz Wolski. A crowd awaits inside an arena, eager for the display. Two men are dressed in armor, preparing for combat with one another. An announcer states that anyone who shouts or interrupts the duel will have their hand cut off, and anyone who interferes will be hanged. It’s so overblown as to be comical, until the two men ride into the arena, and all falls deathly silent.
The riders in question are the knight Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), and his squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), two men whose close friendship soon mutated into seething contempt. Their contempt spilled over into murderous loathing when Madeline de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), wife of Jean, accuses Le Gris of raping her. When Le Gris vehemently denied the accusation, Carrouges challenged him to a duel, literally throwing down the gauntlet before his former friend. Thus setting the stage for the last legally sanctioned trial-by-combat in French history.
Once the stage is set, the film jumps back in time and, Rashomon-style, tells the same tale from three different perspectives: Carrouges’, Le Gris’, and Madeline’s.
I’ll admit I wasn’t enthralled with The Last Duel’s first two chapters. It was technically impressive, but it felt as if Ridley Scott was covering ground he had already covered. The grisly battle sequences, the overblown dialogue, and the absurd wigs made me feel as if I was watching Gladiator again. The only difference was that Scott swapped the decadence of Imperial Rome for the decadence of 14th century France.
Ben Affleck is the biggest highlight of the first two chapters. As the vain, hedonistic Count Pierre d’Alençon, Affleck dons a ridiculous blond wig and eyebrows and proceeds to steal every scene he’s in. The level of camp he indulges in shouldn’t work, but it does. The Count is the kind of man who happily greets a friend by inviting him into his orgy chamber, and Affleck fully embraces this aspect of his personality.
Matt Damon is given the film’s most thankless role as Carrouges. Even from his point-of-view, we see he is arrogant, petulant, and lacks the witty dialogue given to Le Gris or the Count. While his being unlikeable is by design, it also unfortunately makes the opening act of the film all the weaker as a result.
The quality improves somewhat when we follow Jacques Le Gris’ perspective. Adam Driver’s performance is fascinating. He is by alternate turns a skilled warrior, a foolish dandy, and a charming womanizer. Plus, there are more opportunities for him to interact with Affleck’s Count. He may even cause certain audience members to briefly forget he will later be charged with rape.
It’s in the third act, where Comer’s Madeline takes center stage, that the film’s strengths are pulled into much sharper focus. While Damon and Driver are given top billing, Comer plays the central character. Her Madeline is a traumatized woman who refuses to let trauma define her life. Her journey for justice is long and harrowing, and she finds few allies along the way. But Comer, with her soft voice and doe eyes, imbues her with a steely resolve. Justice isn’t a desire of hers. It’s something that must be sought out.
The third act of The Last Duel also shows something else: that Ridley Scott is still a master of his craft. The way the third act elevates the film is nothing short of revelatory, and the last twenty minutes are some of the best film directing Scott has ever accomplished. It features some of the most brutal violence I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio film in some time. But while you may flinch, you won’t look away for long.