A Late Lament for The Last Duel
I understand I’m part of the problem: you’re reading this review now because I wasn’t able to get to Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel until this past week. In my area it was down to about two showtimes a day at a handful of theaters after a disastrous opening weekend, and as I write this it’s nearly out of theaters altogether. Debuting to $4.8 million, cinemas across the country seemed unwilling to give the R-rated medieval drama much of a chance to build some solid word-of-mouth, preferring to cut bait to make more room for safer bets. The film has limped to about $19 million worldwide and seems unlikely to put much more of a dent in its reported $100 million budget.
There are plenty of reasons for The Last Duel’s financial failure. Opening up against Halloween Kills while being sandwiched between the first weekends of No Time to Die and Dune certainly didn’t do it any favors, and of course the box office has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels — especially for adult-oriented, non-tentpoles that many might feel perfectly fine about catching up with at home down the road. Whatever the case may be, it’s a damn shame: Scott’s latest is smart and subversive and deserves a wider audience than it ultimately received.
Based on Eric Jager’s historical accounting of France’s last officially sanctioned trial by combat, The Last Duel uses a Rashomon-like structure to follow three key players: Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). A bitter knight who feels unappreciated by his lords, Jean marries Marguerite in a union of convenience: he needs money and an heir, Marguerite’s father needs to regain a measure of respectability after falling out of favor with the crown. He’s jealous of his former friend Jacques, who has gained the trust of Count Pierre d'Alençon (Ben Affleck), and when Jacques rapes Marguerite, Jean uses the horrific crime as an opportunity to defend his own honor via a duel to the death — even though a loss would brand Marguerite a liar and condemn her to be burned at the stake.
It’s a risky story to tell, particularly at this budget level, and one could easily see a world in which a project like this comes across as tone-deaf and regressive — and while it’s more than fair to question some of the decisions that make it to the screen, the script by Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener is clever without being smug and nuanced without hiding the ball. Chapter titles let us in on the unfolding nature of the piece immediately, and have us on alert to look for differences right off the bat; while some might prefer to be strung along longer than The Last Duel is willing to do, it’s a canny decision from the writing trio to ensure an understanding that this isn’t actually a story where the truth is in doubt, unlike so many other shifting perspective tales throughout the years. Scott and his team make it clear where their loyalties lie (and where ours should) without losing narrative thrust or falling back on easy moralizing — by using ambiguity as a tool rather than a goal, they guide the audience to the necessary conclusions in expert fashion.
Scott has historically had a gift for strong ensembles, and those talents are on full display. The three leads are impeccable (as is the decision to not mandate extensive or cohesive accent work), with Damon and Driver showing range as repulsive stand-ins for (literal) medieval notions of male and female societal value, and Comer shouldering the difficult task of serving as the film’s backbone. If there’s a critique of the screenplay it might be that it doesn’t quite feel balanced — we ultimately feel like we know less about Marguerite than we do about Jacques or Jean — but Comer’s performance (combined with Scott’s veteran direction) contains enough subtlety that it’s a credit to her that the character feels as fleshed out as she does, even before she gets her moment in the spotlight. On the supporting side, Harriet Walter is her usual, solid self, but the use of Affleck is superb. Originally slated to play Driver’s role, Affleck ultimately settles into the smaller part of Count Pierre and approaches it with scene-stealing aplomb, creating something both charismatic and monstrous in a film mostly filled with only the latter. If a future as a supporting player is in the cards, there’s a resurgence of evidence here that it could pay major dividends.
Though the interpersonal is the key here, Scott still takes the opportunity to create the sorts of visceral combat scenes that he still does better than almost anyone, contrasting violence in all its forms in a nauseating yet effective manner. All in all, The Last Duel gives us more of what we’ve come to expect — and perhaps take for granted — from Ridley Scott: large-scale, big-screen storytelling grounded by humanist (and, especially when compared to many of his male contemporaries, feminist) themes and lived-in characters. Ideally the film will find a robust second life on home release and studios won’t take this opportunity to slash Scott’s budgets moving forward. Few filmmakers consistently deliver the way Scott does — anything other than letting him make his movies his way would be a disappointment and a major loss for the art of cinema.