The death of the mid-budget movie has been a popular discussion for the last decade or so. There’s no doubt such movies used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter, but there’s been a sharp downturn in both output and box office success. But whether it be streaming services attempting to boost their credibility and prestige, or film studios clinging to relationships with major directors and actors, there are still a few avenues for such movies to get made.
Despite what people would have you think, The Last Duel is not one of those movies. It’s a member of an even more exclusive club, a club so rare it’s truly on the brink of extinction: the blockbuster drama. The Last Duel was a major swing for the fences with a $100M budget and, on paper, it seemed like a guaranteed hit from a director like Ridley Scott (who’s made a number of similar hits like Gladiator), a screenplay from a pair of old-school movie stars in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also star in the film alongside Adam Driver and up-and-comer Jodie Comer), and a ripe-for-adaptation story.
As you may already know, it didn’t work out that way. The movie made a paltry $9M on its opening weekend, which is a disastrous number considering its enormous budget. Its status as a flop could be contributed to a number of factors. The Last Duel’s target audience of adults are hesitant to head back to the cinema based on ticket sales data; multiplexes are crowded right now with No Time To Die (2021) and Halloween Kills (2021); and it’s long and bleak (dealing with sexual assault). Even with those factors excusing its performance, many industry prognosticators are worried this failure will scare off other studios from investing this sort of capital in original movies truly aimed at adults.
I’m not four paragraphs into a movie review and the actual quality of the film has yet to be discussed. Shouldn’t that be a bad sign? It’s not. The Last Duel is genuinely great, which is why I wanted to start off the review by talking about the film’s lack of success. 2020 robbed us of a lot of things, all of which were more important than anything lost in the entertainment sector, but for movie fans, having so few big-screen spectacles hurt. The Last Duel provides true spectacle with its lavish costumes, immersive sets, movie stars in horrific wigs, and Scott’s usual grandeur (easily it’s his best work since 2015’s The Martian). For lack of a better phrase, it was a “capital M” Movie, something we’ve not had a lot of over the last few years.
But the movie isn’t just eye candy. The script is full of ideas. The story’s split into three sections, each a Rashomon (1950)-style retelling of the same story, with events leading up to an accusation of rape, through the eyes of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), Jacques Le Gris (Driver), and Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer). Affleck and Damon team up for the first time since their Academy Award win for Good Will Hunting (1997) to tell the first two sections, while Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) was brought in to write the final chapter from a woman’s perspective. Each section begins with a title card that says “The truth according to…” but in de Carrouges’ section, the rest of the phrase fades away, leaving only “The Truth.”
It’s in this third chapter where the film’s medieval #MeToo allegory comes to the forefront. There are subtle differences throughout each section, but it becomes clear, if it wasn’t already, just how stacked the system was, and still is, against women, with claims (in court!) like “a rape can’t cause pregnancy. That’s just science.” It wouldn’t sound out of place on Fox News today. Comer shines with a performance worthy of Oscar consideration, portraying both a haunting vulnerability and fierce strength. If movie stars are still a thing, she has all the qualities to become one.
The actual assault, which was left out of the first section, plays out almost entirely the same in both the second and third sections, with only a few small differences, showing that Le Gris is delusional at best, manipulating at worst, and horrific either way. Driver, maybe the closest thing we have to a modern-day movie star with his balance of prestige pictures and big-budget Star Wars detours, once again utilises his physicality and charisma.
Damon, hidden by facial scars and a mullet-esque wig, plays Sir Jean as a general well-meaning man, but full of hubris that only makes the situation worse for his wife. The hateful interplay between Damon’s Sir Jean and Affleck’s obnoxious, dyed-blonde Count Pierre d’Alencon is worthy of a short film all to its own. For being real-life best friends, the Boston Boys are pretty great at throwing barbs toward one another.
The three sections each build toward the titular duel itself, which is curiously not mentioned in the film as one of the last trials-by-combat authorised in France (even in the epilogue), despite it being the title and heavily featured in the marketing campaign. However, the duel absolutely lives up to the hype! It’s vicious in its violence, enthralling in its life or death stakes, and thrilling in its action. Scott reminds everyone why he’s the modern king of the historical drama genre. He can stage a set-piece with the best of them. Damon and Driver sell the brutality, which is downright grimy, and Comer displays a sea of emotions in close-ups throughout the clash.
Does the film strain to convey its modern message through the period trappings at times? Sure. It’s not perfect. But it’s a clever, stylish, blockbuster drama, and audiences should be thankful for that.
USA • UK | 2021 | 153 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Ridley Scott.
writers: Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon (based on the novel ‘The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial By Combat in Medieval France’ by Eric Jager).
starring: Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer & Ben Affleck.