'The Last Duel’s most shocking element is a defiant sense of humor

Technology 15-10-2021 Mashable 52

On its surface, The Last Duel looks like a prestige drama perfectly suited to Oscar season. It’s an epic period piece bringing to light a dark historical moment with a modern awareness of its socio-political meaning. Its helmer is three-time Academy Award-nominated director Ridley Scott. Its screenplay is a collaboration between Academy Award-nominated scribe Nicole Holofcener (who should have won for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Oscars ‘98 Golden Boys, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, with their first screenplay-reteam since the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting.

Naturally, this film is stuffed with highly acclaimed stars, including Damon and Affleck, as well as twice-nominated leading man Adam Driver, not to mention Jodie Comer, the Emmy-winning ingenue of Killing Eve. Add to all this the understandable presumption that The Last Duel will be a Westernized Rashomon, exploring three conflicting perspectives on an alleged crime, and you might think you know just what to expect from this film. However, there’s no way you could predict how joltingly funny and unnervingly entertaining Scott and his incredible team have managed to make something so regal, so grisly, and so bleak.

To be clear, though this historical drama focuses on a rape trial, sexual assault is never a subject of mockery. Instead, the barbs are saved for the men in power, who are painted as simpering fools, snarling frat boys, and egocentric scoundrels. While this film is presented in three chapters that might be described as “he said, he said, she said,” The Last Duel is not subtle about which side it’s taking.

Based on a real-life trial by combat that occurred in 14th-century France, The Last Duel centers on a rape case that pitted the word of a knight’s wife (Comer) against her husband’s (Damon) frenemy, a courtier (Driver) favored by the local lord (Affleck). Bookended by the beginning and end of the eponymous showdown, the narrative is presented in three chapters, each with a title card that proclaims “The Truth According to…” and then whoever’s perspective will be presented. First, Sir Jean de Carrouges lays out his case, defining himself as a soldier of bravery and fortitude. Then, Jacques Le Gris defends, undermining Carrouges’s account, while presenting himself as a clever and diligent servant to his liege. While the film might be dominated by the men, whose chapters make up most of the screentime, it is defined by Lady Marguerite de Carrouges, who gets the last word and the strongest chapter.

Jodie Comer won't be sidelined in "The Last Duel."
Jodie Comer won't be sidelined in "The Last Duel." Credit: 2oth century fox

Early on, a shrewd edit hints at willful omissions in Jean’s story. A pivotal scene of confrontation between him and the lord who loathes him is abruptly abandoned, comically cutting to him recounting the encounter to his doting wife. What went down will later be revealed — almost gleefully — in Jacques’ chapter, along with various salacious sexcapades that slyly build the squire's defense with the callous tactics of a playboy. However, even within this chapter that’s meant to be all about Jacque, Scott includes reactions shots from the women of the court that don’t align with this cad’s perspective. An eye roll here, a heavy sigh there, a panicked glance — each is a clue that there was more going on in these moments than this self-important squire could see past his upturned nose.

An eye roll here, a heavy sigh there, a panicked glance — each is a clue that there was more going on in these moments than this self-important squire could see past his upturned nose.

Marguerite’s chapter expands on these omissions and eye rolls, not by retreading the tales of these men, but by offering the lives of women they pompously overlooked. Hers contains moments of sisterly gossip, snarling judgment from a cold mother-in-law, and vexing advice from male doctors whose concept of women’s bodies is harrowingly superstitious (and all too familiar to anyone following the abortion rights debates currently raging). Yet even within all this darkness and drama, Holofcener, Damon, and Affleck have made space for humor. This proves a necessity, not only keeping the film from being a grim tour of a battle against rape culture that is soul-crushingly timeless, but also reflects a defiant hope for something better than these boorish men in power would dare provide.

The clearest example of this almost satirical comedy is Affleck’s lord, Pierre d'Alençon. Ripping a page from Nicholas Hoult’s The Great playbook, the Boston boy brings a full-chested arrogance into the court, backed up by an unapologetically insatiable lust for pranks, booze, and orgies. When Jacque barges in with worrying news of the rape allegation, Pierre greets him with a booming voice that commands, “Take your pants off!” It’s hilarious in its absurdity, but within this boisterous buffoon is a keen criticism of the self-aggrandizing frat bros who’ve charmed their way into congress, the supreme court, and even the presidency. Simply put, not since Gone Girl has someone cast Affleck so divinely. He makes an absolute meal of this wicked royal, completely understanding the assignment and relishing in every bullying beat.

But that’s not all. Alex Lawther, a British inge-dude who has made a career out of playing whimpering creeps, is the king who oversees the gruesome duel. His wormy smiles at the sight of blood and childish giddiness over life-or-death stakes are sickly amusing but also a crisp condemnation of an entitled class that sees the struggles of others as spicy entertainment. These crucial performances support the leading three, whose portrayals smartly shift from chapter to chapter, displaying distinctly how these characters see themselves and others.

Matt Damon and Jodie Comer play husband and wife in "The Last Duel."
Matt Damon and Jodie Comer play husband and wife in "The Last Duel." Credit: 20th century fox

In his own story, Jean is a white knight, noble, and suitably lacking in self-awareness. In other chapters, he’s a stuttering outcast and a vicious brute. Damon, who has long rested in good guy roles, throws himself into each incarnation with riveting intensity. Matching his energy and surpassing his screen presence, Driver transforms from a cajoling sidekick to a Littlefinger-like mastermind, to an all-too-familiar villain. Playing seductive scoundrels has become his brand, from Girls to Star Wars to Marriage Story. But here, the subtle shifts in performance, aided by the context of his casting niche, bring the true Jacque into mercilessly sharp focus. Finally, Margeruitte transforms from a girlish bride to a savvy seductress, to a far more complicated figure, rich with aches and awareness. Comer, who has transformed over and over in her hit TV show, makes these moves with the ease of a master ballerina, holding her own against actors who’ve got much more acclaim and many more movies under their belt.

Taking on this big story, an all-too-relevant and tricky topic, three perspectives at war, plus a final battle that will explode in graphic violence and unblinking horror, The Last Duel clocks in over two and a half hours. Remarkably, it doesn’t feel long. An astonishingly judicious cut by editor Claire Simpson keeps a brisk pace without cutting key character moments. The punching-up humor of its screenwriting trio keeps a heady levity and sharp wit that punctures the darkest moments, keeping the darkest bit from feeling like a slog. Smartly, Scott is not preaching to the choir, making a rape drama that is hard to watch. He has made something star-studded and prestigious and knowingly accessible, alive with charisma and humor. Yet, his approach is not a compromising spoonful of sugar to help the medicine of hard-to-swallow societal truths go down. This brightness is a rebellious reminder of why the fight must be had. Because even when the odds are stacked against you, there is joy to be found — even if it’s in tearing these bastards down.

The Last Duel opens in theaters on Oct. 15.


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