There are two Ridley Scotts. There’s Ridley the Visionary and then there’s Ridley the Populist. Each has delivered his share of masterpieces, duds, and problematic cult favorites: Visionary Ridley gave us Blade Runner but also 1492: Conquest of Paradise and The Counselor, while Populist Ridley gave us Gladiator and Thelma & Louise but also G.I. Jane and White Squall. The two do sometimes meet. Alien is the work of both an art student with big ideas and a first-rate entertainer; Black Hawk Down is a rousing, Cubist war movie; and though Kingdom of Heaven’s theatrical cut is a pandering mess, its director’s cut is, amazingly, a sublime, thoughtful masterpiece. This tension has run throughout the course of Scott’s career, and it’s one reason that approaching any new film from him is a wonderfully suspenseful ordeal. You never know if you’ll leave the theater enthralled, excited, bored, or utterly perplexed.
Which brings us to Scott’s latest effort, the medieval drama The Last Duel. With its tripartite structure — the picture is split into three sections, each showing the same series of events from a different perspective — and grim subject matter — it’s about the last sanctioned duel in France, a 1386 standoff between two men over a grisly accusation of rape — one may expect the film to be something distant, grave, challenging, complicated. But somehow it turns out to be Scott’s most entertaining movie in decades.
Is that even allowed when the subject matter is so disturbing? The three characters at the heart of The Last Duel are Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), a French nobleman known for his loyalty, bravery, and ferocity; his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the beautiful daughter of a disgraced nobleman, whom Jean marries partly in an effort to alleviate his crippling financial burdens; and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), Jean’s comrade in arms, a squire who rises precipitously in the ranks at Jean’s expense when he becomes a confidant and enforcer of their lord, Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), a hedonistic, shallow dandy. The film first charts the dissolution of Jean and Jacques’s relationship over matters of money, rank, and jealousy. Thanks to Jacques’s devotion to Pierre, he gets the captainship Jean once felt was his birthright as well as the land promised to Jean in Marguerite’s dowry. An outraged Jean repeatedly raises a stink to their lord about the fact that his former friend is getting all the things that were once rightfully his, which of course puts him in further disfavor with the sniveling Pierre. Everything comes to a head, however, when Marguerite accuses Jacques of raping her while Jean was away hunting down his payment for battle. An irate Jean takes the complaint all the way to King Charles (Alex Lawther). The duel of the title is less a duel and more a vicious, metal-as-fuck trial by combat between Jean and Jacques — a spittle-flecked, grotesque orgy of hacking, slicing, and stabbing that’s alternately lumbering and frenetic.
We see the labyrinthine series of incidents leading up to the duel from Jean’s perspective, then Jacques’s, then Marguerite’s. The script was written by Affleck, Damon, and Nicole Holofcener, with the men handling the sections from the male point of view and Holofcener handling the female variation. It may at first seem like a Rashomon-style exercise in exploring the slippery nature of truth, but in fact it’s quite the opposite: Each of the three chapters begins with the words The truth according to … but they all basically tell the same story.
What does shift is the emotional valence of the scenes. A brave, impulsive charge into a group of murderous soldiers in Jean’s telling is revealed in Jacques’s to be a dumb stumble into an enemy trap. In Jacques’s version of the events, we see him trying to defend the broke, not-very-bright Jean to his callow lord, Pierre, but what Jacques thinks are scraps that Jean should be happy with are seen by Jean as insults to his unquestioning loyalty. Jean’s rage at the rape accusation, viewed by him as a matter of principle, is revealed in Marguerite’s eyes to be fueled as much by fury at her for putting him in this situation. To him, she’s not so much a wife as a piece of property that dares, inconveniently, to have a mind and a soul. To her, he’s a crude storm she must do everything to weather. Tonal emphasis becomes everything as we go from one point of view to another, but the truth itself is rarely in doubt. What we’re watching isn’t a deconstruction. It’s a denunciation, a damnation, and just about all the men are going down.
Relatively little is known about the real-life events depicted here, which frees the film to animate this long-ago world with the sensibilities of our own. (And why the hell shouldn’t it? We’re the ones watching, after all.) Marguerite, who briefly bonds at one point with Jacques over their shared love of medieval romance literature, doesn’t exactly feel as if she belongs in the 14th century. Comer lends her an inner conflict that feels thoroughly relatable: She doesn’t want to rock the boat, but she has reached her limits. Meanwhile, the seesawing friendship between Jean and Jacques feels not like the tangled, alien relationship of two men who lived and fought 600+ years ago but like something closer to the emo fallout of a modern-day bromance undone by unspeakable breh-trayal. Damon brings to Jean the dim, burly solidity he has mastered in his middle-age: From one angle, he’s a steadfast, reliable soldier; from another, he’s so dull and hard that he’s thoroughly unaware of the world or others in it.
And then there’s Affleck’s wonderfully skeezy Pierre, a marvelously out-there creation who shouldn’t work at all and yet becomes an engine of uneasy delights. “He’s no fucking fun,” Pierre declares of Jean, a line that should be a throwaway bit of levity but that Affleck delivers with such debauched, motormouth aplomb that as soon as he says it, we understand Damon’s Jean de Carrouges is never, ever, ever going to get what he wants from this entitled mollusk of a man. Pierre is so disdainful of everything (my favorite bit: Affleck pronounces the locality of Bellême as blahm) we can practically smell the contempt. When he appoints Jacques to a high position, he playfully waves his hands in a mocking, abracadabra motion, right before the film cuts to a group of soldiers enacting an elaborate ritual for Jacques’s ascension. This performance is not a joke: Affleck’s dismissiveness underlines the empty, corrupt gestures that lie at the heart of the rules, rituals, and traditions to which Damon’s and Driver’s characters — and societies in general — have wedded themselves. It also reveals how the casual words and actions of the powerful lead to life-destroying consequences for those beneath them. Affleck isn’t just showing off here. His imperious performance is a sly messenger for the film’s moral vision, both hilarious and choke-on-your-laughs tragic.
All this could easily have resulted in a slog. Movies that repeat multiple scenes from different perspectives can become tedious really quickly. And in truth, Scott hasn’t always been the most confident of storytellers. He’s a master of mood and composition, but he tends to be at his best when working with narratives that have been stripped to their essentials. The Last Duel is full of incident and historical detail, and its universe is a complicated one — but it seems the script, by its very nature, has ingeniously done all the necessary underlining for us. Even as it pretends to add complexity and context, it simplifies and focuses. It’s not so much a history lesson as it is a savage, beautiful catharsis — a bonfire of the bros.
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