In Ridley Scott‘s The Last Duel, a character proclaims, “There is no right, there is only the power of men.” It is a line that not only carries weight within the film but has dominated much of the director’s long and illustrious career. Scott likes to highlight the hand-to-hand combat in which humans engage, starting back with his debut, The Duelists. He fancies the draw of the weapon, be they sheathed swords, holstered guns, or slicing words. The cold clang of weapons rings through films as varied Gladiator, Legend, Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood, and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Based on Eric Jager’s book, The Last Duel focuses on the “last legally sanctioned duel in France’s history.” Despite Scott’s battle-heavy history, the title, and source material, the actual combat makes up very little of this two-and-a-half-hour epic. Instead, the narrative focuses on the struggles of those within the kingdom and the rules that govern their lives; those of honor and chivalry. It begins with giving us a peek of the titular duel, as two former friends, Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), face off in a joust over the sexual assault of Jean’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) by Jaques. From there, we jump back to witness the events that led to this battle through three chapters.
Scott employs a Rashomon approach to the event, retelling it from multiple perspectives: the first from Jean, then from Jacques, and finally, from the Marguerite. At times, the style may feel gratuitous, but it has a purpose. We are forced to witness the assault twice, and the audience squirms both times. Having to witness the event for prolonged lengths is discomforting, but its effects on the narrative are sublime. Each version has various strains of truth mixed in with varied perspectives, hubris, and flaws that make for a fascinating (if difficult) watch.
The director’s skill here is in the subtle changes within these variations. It’s not just recounting the assault itself, but the relationships between these former friends and those around them. The Last Duel allows us to analyze the virtues and veracity to formulate our version of the truth.
“…Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris face off in a joust over the sexual assault of Jean’s wife…”
Much has been made for Damon’s peak-Swayze-era mullet choice, and while it is initially distracting, his earnest portrayal overshadows that, and he comes across as complex and heartfelt. Driver brings a certain duplicity to the role and serves as a formidable, opportunistic foe with flashes of humanity. While much ink has been spilled about the reuniting of Damon with Ben Affleck, the latter is only on screen for a few scenes. But his foul-mouthed eccentric Lord Count Pierre d’Alençon is a gem in some of the darker stretches.
However, Comer is the true star. While the others take turns suiting up in armor, she uses only her guile as protection. As a result, she dominates the screen, particularly when it is her character’s turn at the mic. Reserved and moderated, Comer imbues Marguerite with humanity seldom seen from female roles in such historical epics.
Scott knows how to shoot a battle, which is brutal and bloody and captured with masterful precision. Gone are the amber-hued tones of the highly stylized Gladiator, traded for a more hushed, somber palette of blues and murky greys. The Last Duel saves some of its most damaging cuts for current political systems, echoing how little we have progressed regarding female autonomy.
Despite periodic bursts of action, The Last Duel has a long wick that burns slowly toward its violent conclusion. It’s a wisely protracted take from writers Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener that allows the audience to consume its narrative details, performances, and Scott’s stirring visuals. It should be noted that those who have dealt with assault may wish to pass, as they might struggle witnessing the brutality through the various perspectives.
"…Comer is the true star."