Two men – former close friends – battle to the death for honor and the truth in God’s eyes.

It’s a singular moment in time that frames director Ridley Scott’s latest film, an epic two-and-a-half hour medieval odyssey featuring the first script penned by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon since the duo won the Oscar for original screenplay for 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

But The Last Duel is about so much more than a brutal fight played out in front of thousands of Parisians.

While audiences see Sir Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris being dressed for combat, a third person is also readying for this moment, de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite, and it’s her equal footing to two polar opposite men that truly gives The Last Duel a unique and remarkably compelling narrative to draw viewers in. 

Based on the true story of the last sanctioned duel in France, the film follows the lives of three individuals over the course of a decade during the 1360s and the rape allegation that brought all three to the brink of death in front of the king.

All three lead performances are distinctly intertwined because of the narrative structure segmenting out the events of the film into chapters, each focused from the vantage point of the primary character of the chapter.

This creates a dynamic energy to scenes as they unfold a second or third time, allowing the actors to change tone, physical presence or mannerisms with the same blocking and dialogue to completely transform everything audiences have come to know about the character up until that point.

Damon’s de Carrouges maintains the physicality and brutishness of a battle-tested soldier whose rough edges put him at a distance from those around him and leave him on the outside of high society. In the first chapter from his perspective, de Carrouges has a softer underbelly of emotion for both his mother and his wife, Marguerite, that sets him up to be the hero of the tale.

When the story turns to Marguerite or even more darkly to Le Gris, Damon sheds the emotional heart and plunges into a bitter, vindictive persona that indicates how those around him perceive de Carrouges to be.

Conversely, Adam Driver’s exceptionally shrewd work as Le Gris has a smarm-filled villainy that makes him easily reviling but does a remarkable job of rounding out the character during the middle chapter that makes Le Gris the opposite side of the coin to de Carrouges as one who uses his charm and smarts to curry favor rather than by brute force.

The film’s best work comes from Killing Eve star Jodie Comer, whose presence lingers throughout much of the film but truly comes alive once The Last Duel essentially cedes itself over to Marguerite for the final lead-up to the duel. Her performance is warm and cheery, somber and melancholic, up and down as the moment and perspective calls for.

Marguerite’s motivations are the least clearly defined of the three characters, which increases the degree of difficulty in pulling off such a magnetic performance, but Comer astounds with terrific poise and wonderful chemistry (or lack thereof as is called for) with her co-stars.

The exceptional screenplay weaves moments in time seamlessly by replicating them through the eyes of each of the three main characters, giving audiences perspective on how each sees the world by showing how events (or perceptions of events) differ based on who is living through them.

While this plays out solidly in interactions between de Carrouges and Le Gris, what’s more compelling is how approaching the narrative in a tri-fold, blended manner impacts the sexual dynamic of how the men believe their interactions with Marguerite are before revealing the truth through her eyes.

Putting Marguerite on equal footing with the two men in her life requires a deft screenplay, rounded out by writer Nicole Holofcener who takes the lead in the final chapter and creates the film’s most emotional moments in establishing Marguerite’s state of mind as she fights for agency in a world of men who never truly believe her.

The Last Duel is the kind of quality epic period drama that the Academy usually recognizes heavily come Oscar season though it’s unclear whether this will be the Scott-directed, Driver-starring feature voters will lean towards with the crime biopic House of Gucci still to come this fall. It certainly has the ability to earn Best Picture and Best Actress nominations in addition to several below-the-line categories but could be passed over for flashier films.

There’s a brutality to the violence that could be off-putting to more casual viewers, but ardent cinephiles looking for a grandiose big-budget drama with movie stars at the top of their game will easily find what they are looking for with The Last Duel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: