‘The Last Duel’ Review: Damon and Driver Go Head to Head
By Daniel Rester
Ridley Scott returns to swords and sandals with The Last Duel, based on Eric Jager’s 2004 book of the same name and a true story. Scripted by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, it tells the story of a knight and a squire in late-1300s France who fight to the death in a duel. The material is right in Scott’s wheelhouse since he has given audiences pictures like Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). This time, however, the sword-on-sword action somewhat takes a backseat to an intimate drama and a skewering of misogynistic men.
Damon plays Jean de Carrouges, a stubborn French knight who participates in war campaigns in order to try to keep his head up financially. He is friends with Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a squire who is favored over others by the devious Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). After marrying a woman named Marguerite (Jodie Comer), Jean becomes irritated with Jacques and Pierre after they won’t allow him to secure land that was supposed to be part of Marguerite’s dowry. Tension escalates when Marguerite accuses Jacques of rape.
Jean decides to challenge Jacques to a duel to the death to settle the matter. Though not a common practice anymore in 1386, the duel is accepted by the king. If Jean wins and survives, he and Marguerite’s stand will be taken as truth. If Jean loses and dies, Marguerite will be burned alive.
The Last Duel feels disjointed for the first thirty minutes or so as it jumps years forward from scene to scene. This section mostly focuses on Jean, his warrior temper, and his marriage to Marguerite. He wishes to have a son with Marguerite because he has no heir, and others worry that he could die in one of the many battles he participates in.
Scott’s film eventually finds its footing as the script grows more intelligent. It reveals itself to have a structure with a Rashomon effect. While those beginning scenes are seen through Jean’s point of view, some of the scenes are played out again from Jacques’ viewpoint and then from Marguerite’s. As the chapters unfold, new character shades and actions are revealed as Scott, the performers, and the writing apply nuances depending on whose story is in focus. The Last Duel invites repeat viewings to notice all of the slight differences in the repeated scenes.
Scott stages everything maturely and smoothly as the drama unfolds. He and the script are unafraid of calling out the ugly nature of male machismo and the abusive action taken by men against women. Scott also shows he’s still in love with gruesome battle scenes, with blood splashing against armor in multiple scenes. The final duel itself is remarkably intense. I wish Scott chose to trim down the film a little more though, as the 152 minutes allow some dull sections to appear. His choice of a dark blue-gray, drab look to the entire project makes it feel monotonously sullen at times as well.
Damon does well enough despite it being hard to shake the feeling that he is miscast as the brutish Jean; his mullet wig doesn’t help matters. Driver and Comer come off better as Jacques and Marguerite, respectively. He plays arrogant and clever well, while she explores Marguerite’s pain with a natural touch. The scene stealer here, however, is Affleck. He’s both playful and menacing as Pierre, breathing life into the middle section of the film.
The Last Duel is a solid Scott film in the director’s long and excellent career. It has smart writing, strong performances, and assured handling. But it’s also too long and occasionally tedious as it moves toward the inevitable climax.
My Grade: 8/10 (letter grade equivalent: B+)
Running Time: 2h 32min