It's been 24 years since "Good Will Hunting" made Oscar-winning scribes out of real-life best friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Curiously, it took that long for the two to reunite as writers once again, bringing in a third, the Oscar-nominated Nicole Holofcener ("Can You Ever Forgive Me?") to adapt Eric Jager's novel, "The Last Duel."
The dynamic behind the script - two men and one woman - is also at the heart of the brutal story itself, a true tale about a 14th century knight, Jean de Carrouges (Damon) who challenges his squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) to a duel, after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouges's wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer).
Directed by Ridley Scott ("Alien," "The Martian," "Gladiator"), this is not a film categorized as "entertaining" in the same way that many of his other films might be. "The Last Duel" is a very tough watch, and may not be for all movie-goers who might enter in based on the star-power, or thinking they're going to get a riotous, sword-clashing adventure. It's rather a depiction of what life was like for women in medieval times, and how some of this treatment echoes through all the way to modern times.
It's powerful, with more than a few hiccups, but "The Last Duel" finds its stride as it gallops on, making it one of the most important films of the year, if falling short of being one of the best ones.
The film is structured with three distinct narratives, as we get to see different versions and perspectives play-out of the same events. The first sets the stage, as we learn from de Carrouges how he is a noble, loyal fighter (sporting one of the world's worst mullets), who once saved the life of his eventual friend and squire, Jacques Le Gris. That bastard Le Gris would go on to have the hots for Carrouges's wife Marguerite, and while Carrouges was away in battle, would force himself upon Marguerite. At this time in history, this was not a crime against the woman, oh no. This was an inexcusable disrespect of another man's property, a pox on another lord's good name.
Things aren't nearly as clear-cut as Damon's mullet in the second act, where we get to see events unfold through the eyes of Le Gris. Yes, Le Gris had respect for Carrouges, but he was intent on making a name for himself with or without Carrouges's help. The highest-ranking lord in the area, Pierre d'Alencon (an award-worthy turn from Ben Affleck) has his backing, and Le Gris just couldn't help himself upon meeting eyes with the lovely Marguerite. It was love at first sight and the fact that it was an unbridled, forbidden love made it all the more sweet. How could Le Gris possibly help himself? He understands that he must duel Carrouges, but is doing so to restore his honor and squelch these rumors of "rape"...sure, Marguerite called out for him to stop his advances, but that's all part of the courting process.
It's not until the third act where we understand what "The Last Duel" is really about, and what it's trying to say. Granted, it takes a bit too long to arrive but when it does, the film really takes flight. Powered by an equally award-worthy turn from Jodie Comer, we start to see this grimy, horrific world through the eyes of not just Marguerite, but women in general. Raised simply to be married off in what amounts to a real estate transaction, she is paired with Carrouges but neither party has any interest in anything outside the normal realm of marital responsibilities. Unable to become pregnant, Marguerite is shamed, and the fact that she once called Le Gris handsome ends up being a damning proclamation of her guilt in the eyes of the public. Her husband duels not for her sake, but for his own.
This three-pronged approach to storytelling works when looked back on, but while watching "The Last Duel" unfold, you may ask yourself more than once where all of this is headed, or what's the point. My advice is just to hang in there.
Along the way we see the incredulous world in which women were forced to exist, with a mix of masculinity and ignorance guiding most of the politics of the time. Over and over again, men in the story try to tell Marguerite that she must have dreamed the encounter, echoing how in today's world women are still doubted in cases of rape, where men whisper that she "must have been asking for it" based on a number of nonsensical factors or blatantly sexist odium.
Matt Damon feels oddly miscast, and it takes a while to accept him in the role (that hair...). But Jodie Comer makes the movie, with solid work (per usual) from Driver and supporting cast. Affleck plays his arrogant nobleman with just a slight touch of femininity, and unlike Damon who struggles to make you believe he's that guy, Affleck melts away into his character almost after the very first beat.
It must be reiterated that "The Last Duel" may be too much of a shock to the system of movie-goers who enter thinking this is some kind of popcorn epic. It is not. Ridley Scott makes the film feel grand, but this is really a small story, about a woman's worth and the planet of uneducated apes surrounding her, who are too damned caught up in their own nobility and self-worth to ever illustrate even an ounce of actual humanity.
Genre: Action, Drama, History.
Run Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
Starring: Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Adam Driver, Clare Dunne, Zeljko Ivanek, Martin Csokas.
Written by Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck & Matt Damon
Based on the book by Eric Jager
Directed by Ridley Scott ("The Martian," "American Gangster," "Gladiator," "White Squall," "Thelma & Louise," "Alien").
"The Last Duel" is in theaters on Friday, October 15th, 2021.
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