Movie Review: The Last Duel

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  • 2h 32min

by Jason Koenigsberg

Alfred Hitchcock once stated that if you can close your eyes and know what is going on in a movie then the director is doing a bad job. Film is a visual medium and there are few more visually stunning filmmakers than Ridley Scott. He obviously subscribes to Hitchcock’s statement since he has directed awe inspiring classics such as Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Gladiator (2000), yet one movie he made seems to get forgotten when people list the greatest hits from Ridley Scott’s filmography, Thelma and Louise (1991) which earned Scott his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Going into his newest film The Last Duel one might expect something akin to Gladiator from the trailers, but this movie really has a lot more in common with Thelma and Louise with its feminist themes of women trying to struggle and survive in a mans world.

The opening shot is of a woman from behind getting dressed with the help of two female servants. This is the first clue that might make the viewer curious why the director chose this image to start the picture but that will be answered by the end. That woman is played by Jodie Comer and her character is the straw that stirs the events that unfold in The Last Duel. We then see two men getting dressed in armor as if to go into battle. These two men are the other main characters played by Matt Damon and Adam Driver and they are getting prepared for the confrontation that gives this movie its title. Text on the screen lets the audience know that this is based on a true story that happened in late 14th century France. Dates and locations in France appear via text a lot on the screen early on but eventually slow down as The Last Duel has title cards which break up the narrative into three different chapters. Each chapter is told from a different point of view. This movie is like Rashomon (1950) but with knights instead of samurai. The first chapter is told from Matt Damon’s POV, the second from Adam Drivers, and the third which also makes sure to tell the audience is ‘the truth’ is from Jodie Comer’s perspective.

That summarizes the plot without ruining any key moments but normally people do not go to Ridley Scott movies for the story. His most memorable movies sweep the audience away with his grand visual style. The Last Duel does have some lush set designs and very intricate and authentic looking costumes throughout, but the cinematography is unusually gray and drab for a Ridley Scott period piece. This was clearly an intentional and artistic choice because the subject matter involving rape is not a fun one. Granted some of his other epics revolve around revenge and murder but sexual assault is an even more depressing subject and the color palette reflects how these characters feel and how the audience should feel throughout while never being too manipulative. The Last Duel is also stocked with Christian imagery as it should be since this is France shortly before the Crusades. Speaking of which, one of the biggest flaws in The Last Duel is that we have all these English speaking French soldiers which out of context is pretty silly.

Matt Damon and Adam Driver both play rather despicable characters which is uncommon for two of the most famous actors working today and they get the job done. One character is clearly more reprehensible than the other one and they do an admirable job foreshadowing when one of them drops a line comparing Jodie Comer’s character to Helen of Troy. Her performance evolves as the story progresses and she has more layers to her character the more time she spends on camera. However the best performance in The Last Duel is from Ben Affleck as a spoiled and callous nobleman. He makes the most of his funny, scene stealing scoundrel that the viewer will probably want to punch him in the face at least two or three times when he is on screen. It is also notable that with his blonde hair and goatee he is almost unrecognizable. It may also help that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the screenplay along with Nicole Holofcener. The Last Duel is more align with her sentiments than Good Will Hunting (1997), this is not a feel-good movie in the slightest.

This movie is however a smart and timely feminist social commentary. It has a lot to say about women’s place in society comparing their roles back then to where they stand now. Yes we have universally evolved giving females more of a voice rather than just their husbands, but with all of the laughable dialogue involving their place regarding legal matters and science political debates involving abortion today sound just as ludicrous. Lines such as “a woman cannot get pregnant from rape because she feels no pleasure” and “rape is not a crime against a woman, it is a crime against property” might at first make the viewer chuckle at their ignorance but then become saddened when they realize women are still marginalized in a lot of ways that we try to cover up. The Last Duel does have scenes of rape and consensual sex but neither are erotic and surely that was intentional. Ridley Scott has never been keen to show steamy romantic moments in his movies and has been criticized for that, his response was “sex is boring unless you’re the one having it”.

The Last Duel is a mature movie with the themes of toxic masculinity and budding feminism collide in a world that was not ready for it and it makes the audience realize that we are still not handling those subjects as well as we should. Women are not on equal footing as men and this movie may be the unlikeliest source to deliver that message. A movie about the condemnation women face for speaking out against their assaulters and about the heavy price they pay if they stay silent. There is a great scene between an older woman and Jodie Comer’s character that hits the nail on the head and will undeniably make people think of women who were punished in our times like Anita Hill for coming forward with their stories.

But The Last Duel also delivers on the action. Not as much as some other Ridley Scott films but the audience can rest assured that the titular duel itself more than lives up to the hype. It is a brutal yet elegant spectacle. A choreography of violence that is sure to make people cringe and satisfy those that came for a jolt of macho adrenaline.

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