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The Last Duel Movie Review

The Last Duel (2021) movie poster The Last Duel

Theatrical Release: October 15, 2021

Running Time: 153 Minutes

Rating: R

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon (screenplay); Eric Jager (book)

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Pierre d'Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Carrouges), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csokas (Crespin), William Houston (Herald at the Duel), Oliver Cotton (Jean de Carrouges III), Aurelien Lorgnier (Carrouges' Priest), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Tallulah Haddon (Marrie), Bryony Hannah (Alice)


Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are the most famous winners of a screenwriting Oscar and that is in no danger of changing anytime soon. And yet in the quarter-century since the two shot to stardom with their still highly celebrated Good Will Hunting script,
they've written very little and have hardly collaborated at all in a professional degree. Separately, Damon and Affleck have had so many highs and lows. Affleck bottomed out as a paycheck A-lister in the early 2000s and rebounded to become the Oscar-winning director of Argo, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone. Damon has hardly faltered and managed to be a face of two blockbuster franchises (Bourne and Ocean's). On opposite sides of 50, the Boston-raised best friends are each still in demand both as leading men and tabloid fodder, having weathered controversies, failures, an embarrassing back tattoo, and a high-profile divorce. And in The Last Duel they are finally reteamed both as co-writers and actors.

This period drama from director Ridley Scott (Gladiator) is not something you'd easily identify as a Damon-Affleck work or as an obvious follow-up to the landmark Miramax drama they penned half a lifetime ago. This one is set in fourteenth century France and adapted from Eric Jager's 2004 novel of the same name by Damon, Affleck, and top-billed scribe Nicole Holofcener, who was Oscar-nominated for her previous adapted screenplay, 2018's Can You Ever Forgive Me?. The trio undoubtedly owes a debt to Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's legendary 1950 film which presented its story from multiple points of view. This design has been employed on occasion over the decades since, but it serves The Last Duel exceptionally well, elevating it from what seemed like a year-end award season softball to something that quite tastefully captures some of the feelings of the Time's Up and #MeToo movements that have redefined industries, especially show business, over the past few years.

The opening scene establishes the titular duel, one that is to take place between the knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and the squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). This battle to the death means nothing to us at first glance and the movie uses the next two hours to change that. It details the dispute between de Carrouges and Le Gris in three different ways, the first two from their perspectives and finally from that of Carrouges' wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer), who accuses Le Gris of raping her while her husband was away on business.

The screenplay takes its time arriving at the central conflict, exploring the roots of the resentment which exists between the two colleagues before accusations are made and the royal court becomes involved. Diplomacy eschews Carrouges as he ignores orders in combat. Inevitably, it is Le Gris that becomes a confidant and friend to Count Pierre d'Alencon (Affleck), while Carrouges marries the beautiful Marguerite, daughter of a somewhat disgraced individual, and has to pursue legal recourse to secure land that he believes should be rightfully part of his dowry.

Matt Damon sports a far from flattering look as Jean de Carrouges in Ridley Scott's "The Last Duel."

The first two acts of the film are a bit abrasive as the misogyny of the age is on full display. Marguerite is treated like property and property that the handsome and literate Le Gris feels entitled to. Even in the tellings from their perspectives, the personal defects of these French noblemen are plain for 21st century viewers to see. One wonders could this last duel potentially end in a draw with both of them dying at the same moment?

Much is gained and absolved in the third and final act, which at last lends a much-needed voice to Marguerite, a bright and capable woman who until now has been seen bearing her lot in life, a marriage to an obese and unfortunately mulleted knight, with a silent smile and the patience of a saint. It's daring for a film belonging to a genre that has always skewered towards males to present its story in this manner, letting "The Truth" part of "The Truth According to Marguerite" intertitle linger just long enough for an aha moment in which the viewer realizes the writers, stars, and 83-year-old Scott all get it and are not just making another historical drama in which loathsome men murder and mutilate each other.

More could be said about this clever design, but I think doing so would spoil some of the film's unexpected pleasures, so I'll stop my synopsis there. This is a film that grows on you in reflection and whose epic 153-minute runtime passes by without you or your bladder giving it thought. When the promised duel finally arrives and injects the film with action and adrenaline that have been conspicuously missing for most of the narrative, it does so with great resonance and relevance, stakes having been established and us having made peace with the fact that seven hundred years such barbarism was considered a valid form of justice.

Jodie Comer stands out as Madeleine de Carrouges, the focus of The Last Duel's strongest third.

This is not the film I expected to get from Scott, Damon, and Affleck. On the basis of Alien and Blade Runner alone, Scott is a living legend and he's remained bizarrely productive, talented, and cutting edge into old age. I may not think much of Gladiator, his 2000 Best Picture winner I had to see with my high school Latin class, or The Martian, the Golden Globes' 2015 winner for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy.
But the Englishman's filmography is full of respectable work, from the enduring Thelma & Louise to the irresistible Nicolas Cage OCD caper Matchstick Men to the apparently underappreciated Prometheus. The director has not just this but the crime drama House of Gucci arriving before year's end and perhaps it's about time to do something about his lack of even a single Academy Award, assuming Gucci lives up to its promise.

While her top billing suggests Holofcener is the principal architect of the script, she, Damon, and Affleck all deserve credit for finding a way to tell this true historical story in a way that suits our times and in a way that subverts expectations. Affleck is dynamic in his little screentime while Damon can be commended for setting aside his ego and playing this utterly unattractive role as not a gimmick or transformation but seemingly the latest challenge of him accepting middle age and valuing the content of a movie over his traditional marquee looks. Between this and the dreadful summer Amazon musical Annette, Driver is sure embracing his unlikable side as if the widely liked Kylo Ren didn't exorcise his demons. But the real standout of the movie and probably the only one with a shot at getting an Academy Award nomination for acting here is Comer, who has made a fast transition from television (where she won an Emmy for the spy thriller "Killing Eve") to film, following up her mostly thankless work in Shawn Levy's fun but dumb late summer hit Free Guy with a nuanced performance that deserves accolades. You wouldn't know coming in, but the entire film rests on Comer's characterization and performance and the fact you leave the movie satisfied is in no small part due to her.

Historical dramas have often sputtered at the box office, something Scott is well aware of, having helmed 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Kingdom of Heaven, and Exodus: Gods and Kings, all of them box office disappointments in North America. The Last Duel could easily be a hard sell, its value not obvious on the basis of its marketing and it facing stiff competition from Halloween Kills and holdover No Time to Die. There is enough to admire in here to hope Scott finds an audience and does not have to rely exclusively on foreign markets as he has on past domestic flops.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The French DispatchAntlersNo Time to Die
Written by Nicole Holofcener: Can You Ever Forgive Me?Please Give

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Reviewed October 15, 2021.

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