Movie Review: “The Last Duel” Heaves with the Weight of Its Purpose

Movie Review: “The Last Duel” Heaves with the Weight of Its Purpose

There would have been an argument for keeping the camera fixed squarely on the face of Marguerite (Jodie Comer) for the duration of the eponymous armored heave-to. After all, the film’s seeming intention is to cast the duel as a matter whose consequences matter most meaningfully for her. That was never going to happen, though: everyone involved knows we came to see The Last Duel, and so director Ridley Scott dutifully follows every last stab of the lance and swipe of the battle-axe.

At first, it seems, this is all going to be in good grubby fun: a popcorn epic about medieval combat, with co-writer Matt Damon rocking 14th-century hockey hair alongside a leonine Adam Driver, with co-writer Ben Affleck presiding as a regional royal who has a blonde soul patch but no soul. (Nicole Holofcener, the third writer on this project that unites Affleck and Damon in that capacity for the first time since their Good Will Hunting Oscar win, seems to have successfully begged off discovering how her own Middle Ages mane would look.)

Instead, though, the film turns out to revolve around a harrowing sexual assault, with an absolutely unambiguous Me Too message that reminded my partner, who reminded me, that Damon and Affleck have Harvey Weinstein to thank for launching Good Will Hunting into the Oscar-sphere — and have themselves to blame for inadequate responses to revelations of his abuse.

If The Last Duel is indeed their apologia, it seems unlikely that anyone who’s on the fence about them will accept the apology. Sure, the movie makes its point — believe women — but does its condemnation of toxic masculinity have enough weight to justify not one but two graphic depictions of rape? Not when, manifestly, the battling beefcakes were what the movie knows we all came to see. (Never mind the question of intersectionality, elided by this all-white period piece.)

The film does gain some traction with a recursive structure that dramatizes how the same events can be framed and remembered differently to suit the purposes of the various parties involved, but The Last Duel is no Rashomon. Nor is it Gladiator (“Are you not entertained?” that film had the prescience to ask) or even Braveheart, the kind of historical epic that does what it sets out to do, however appalling that might be. If anyone deserves an Oscar here, it’s sound designer Michael Fentum, who bestows loving attention on every squeak, shriek, and groan of the duelists’ heavy armor.

Judging by the comments I overheard from other viewers leaving the preview screening, the average moviegoer won’t be entering The Last Duel much concerned with the former golden boys’ redemption — and will like the film well enough. If that’s you, well, there you go. If you want to bear witness, though, there are a lot of movies more important than this one.

Jay Gabler

Photo: Adam Driver and Matt Damon in The Last Duel (courtesy 20th Century Studios).