Ridley Scott is arguably something of a filmmaking legend at this point who can probably direct epic action/dramas in his sleep. His latest film, The Last Duel, suggests he may have finally done just. While peppered with minor action beats and a delightfully rambunctious performance from Ben Affleck, the bulk of the overly lengthy film offers a frustratingly undercooked Rashomon-style look at the five years leading up to a sexual assault — told three times from three different viewpoints. It’s based on a true story from history, but rather than liven up the past the film threatens instead to drown in its own uneven intentions.
Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) is a fierce warrior on the battlefield, but off he’s little more than a petulant man-child demanding the respect of everyone within reach of his tiny arms. He lands a beautiful bride in Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer) and introduces her to his old friend Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a mistake which comes back to bite him when the roguish Jacques rapes the woman. With local justice unattainable thanks to Jacques’ close relationship with Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), Jean seeks recompense from the King of France in authorizing a duel to the death — the final such face-off sanctioned by the royal courts — between the men to determine the truth of what happened. God will reveal the truth of the matter by deciding who wins the duel!
The Last Duel is co-written by Affleck and Damon — their first screenwriting collaboration since 1997’s Good Will Hunting — with help from Nicole Holofcener, and it intends to be a sharp, affecting commentary on a patriarchal society that views women as property to be used, abused, and owned by men. The pieces are there, and there’s wit to its exploration of skewed perceptions, but the film’s format and execution leave even the most relevant observations to land with a frequently dull and dour thud.
The film’s divided into three parts, from three different perspectives, and each sees small differences that tend to favor the teller. The tone matches the character in Jean’s version resulting in a dismal, blue-tinted tale of a little bitch and the woman unfortunate enough to have married him. Jean feels wronged at every turn turning him into an angry mutt who sulks and complains about what he deserves from an ungrateful wife, a friend turned betrayer, and a disrespectful Count. He doesn’t want to believe his wife’s claim, but when he does it’s with the belief that he himself has been wronged here. Yes, even in Jean’s own version of events he is an unlikable prick.
Next up, The Last Duel shows these five years through Jacques’ eyes, and it’s a rude and bawdy tale of a man who earns his way into the Count’s good graces while his friend Jean simply whines about the unfairness of life. Pierre minces no words when it comes to his thoughts on Jean, and Affleck is having a ball trashing Damon’s constantly grimacing knight. Jacques’ view on young Marguerite is that she aims saucy “come hither” looks his way more than once and in effect asks to be taken by force. When he finally has his way with her — a sequence mirroring an earlier dalliance with a far more willing female partygoer — he sees her protests as customary but not to be taken seriously.
Finally, Marguerite’s version — the one the chapter card tells us is the truth — reveals her to be the unfortunate pawn in a game of male ego and entitlement. Jean is a terrible and petulant husband, Jacques is an aggressive and untrustworthy predator, and Marguerite’s only hope is to outlive them all. Comer gives it power, but in a story about the marginalized female experience it feels like too little too late. The film may not be celebrating Jean’s and Jacques’ angry attitudes and belief that women are property, but twice as much time is spent on those male perspectives than on the woman’s truth. Worse, especially for a film wanting to show her strength and integrity, by the time it all ends we will have heard Marguerite’s rape described multiple times and made to witness it twice.
Small differences distinguish each of The Last Duel‘s chapters from each other — from facial hair and minor interactions to who said what and the terror on Marguerite’s face during the assault — but in a two-and-a-half-hour film that still leaves lots of redundancy. The film feels every minute of its running time, and while some moments pop (thank you Affleck) and a few find emotional purchase, the bulk feel like missed opportunities hampered by bloat and stunt casting. Affleck and Damon are both strong actors, but not everyone belongs in period fare. It’s telling that Driver looks as if he simply strode onto the set and immediately blended in while the other two required substantial time in hair & makeup.
The varied attempts at a vague British accent — the film takes place in 14th century France, after all — find inconsistency starting with the Queen’s English by way of Boston that Affleck brings to the table. So much of The Last Duel is meant to be taken seriously, often to the film’s detriment, that Affleck’s casually indifferent and boisterous performance offers bursts of ill-fitting fresh air. He feels at times just a few steps removed from a Monty Python bit, though, and he threatens to clash with his somber surroundings. Still, you’ll be glad he’s there.
The Last Duel is as well-crafted and visually impressive as you’d expect from Scott, but better-suited actors and a more focused script are both visibly absent. Affleck and Damon feel out of place in a heavy tale set in medieval times — although you can easily see Affleck’s Count holding court at Medieval Times — and wind up distracting from both character and tone. And an abundance of time is spent showcasing the men’s false perspectives leaving the woman shorted despite being the center of it all. There are highlights here, but at one-hundred-and-fifty-minutes there just aren’t enough of them.