Warning: Minor spoilers
We talk a lot about how amazing it is that Martin Scorsese is still making large scale and vital movies at the ripe old age of 78 and yet people seem oddly less shocked that Ridley Scott, who is actually five years Scorsese’s elder, seems to be able to mount even larger (if probably less vital) movies on a near regular basis. Scott is truly the last of a dying breed, a filmmaker in the vein of a Howard Hawkes who can make movies in all sorts of commercial genres (while specializing in a few) and can adjust himself to each of them while still having a detectable style if you know what to look for. It’s one thing to be a director who makes a lot of movies in this day and age but the other super-prolific filmmakers these days tend to be people like Steven Soderbergh who put together smaller scale efforts but Ridley Scott seems to crank out rather massive productions, especially since he sort of reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with Gladiator. He’ll work in a smaller movie like Matchstick Men here or there, but the majority of his many movies are ambitious productions made for tens of millions of dollars. Of course the downside of his productivity is that his work can be inconsistent. I don’t get the impression that he phones in certain projects at all but he does not write his own scripts and sometimes seems to rush projects into production that haven’t quite been perfected on the page yet and for every hit like The Martian there seem to be two misses like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Alien: Covenant. This year we’re getting not one but two Scott productions in fairly quick succession, the first of them being a medieval epic that seems to be very much in his wheelhouse with The Last Duel.
The film is set in Northern France in the late 14th century and the film’s title refers to a trial by combat that would be fought between a knight named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and a squire named Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who had once been friends but who had grown increasingly antagonistic over the years, reaching a fever pitch when it is accused that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). The film is presented as three separate accounts, one from each of these people, of the events leading up to this. First we see de Carrouges’s account, in which he views himself as a perennial underdog constantly being treated unfairly by Le Gris and their mutual lord, the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), before finally hatching a scheme to sidestep the biased courts and defend his woman’s honor. We then see Le Gris’ account, in which de Carrouges is actually an unhinged idiot whose various problems are largely self-inflicted wounds caused by his perennial bridge burning and whose oafish abusiveness drove Le Gris and Marguerite into an affair. We then get Marguerite’s account, which I will hold off from revealing as much about, but who has her own perspective on both of these men and the society around them leading up to the fateful duel of the title.
Akira Kurosawa made his film Rashomon in 1950 and it remains the touchstone whenever someone makes movies about diverging viewpoints of a single event. People talk about that movie as if to suggest that it’s a movie where every character’s point of view is valid and that it’s a movie about the subjectivity of truth but I don’t think that’s exactly right. In that movie events diverge in ways that are too dramatic to be explained away as simply differences of perspective; some of those characters have to be lying, or maybe all of them are lying, but it’s a movie about deception rather than good faith disagreement. That is not necessarily the case with The Last Duel though. We get three versions of more or less the same events here, there’s no voice over or anything but the title cards label them as the “truth” according to the people involved so to some extent we’re presumably supposed to view them as dramatizations of each person’s testimony and while all of them could be said to be guilty of lies of omission they actually don’t really contradict each other, at least not in matters of basic fact. Even when it comes to the central sexual assault neither the “he said” nor the “she said” really depicts different actions, rather they only differ insomuch as the “he said” is looking at the encounter through a toxic lens in which “no” can mean “yes.”
Where the accounts do diverge are in matters of intention and emphasis. For example we learn in Jean de Carrouges’ story that a piece of land that was promised to him in a dowry was taken from him by the Count and given to Le Gris but Le Gris’ own account asserts that this wasn’t his own machination and was instead kind of an inadvertent benefit of him being favored and we get a better idea of why de Carrouges as viewed as unfavorably as he was by the court. Of course the story that diverges most dramatically is Marguerite’s story, which tends to more heavily emphasize how nasty the Damon character could be and how little she even knew the Le Gris character. That story also displays the full extent of how archaic medieval views of sex and gender could be to the point of rape being viewed as a property crime committed against the husband of the victim and some very backwards notions of the science of conception. Where the two men spend their whole narratives trying to show how much of an asshole the other is, her account basically just confirms how right both of them are: they are indeed both assholes, but their own accounts give a good idea of why they’re also both so incapable of self-reflection.
This being a period epic of sorts from Ridley Scott one feels compelled to compare it to the first costume drama that rejuvenated Scott’s career, Gladiator. That was a movie with a much dumber script than this movie has but a lot of that movie’s faults are kind of painted over by its star Russell Crowe, who feels almost perfectly at home giving a commanding movie star performance and just seems to have a face that looks good in that environment. As Chris Rock would say in an Oscar monologue a few years later: “if your movie’s set in the past, get Russell Crowe’s ass.” Scott’s other period epics like Kingdom of Heaven have kind of struggled to find actors with the same timeless quality and this one is no exception. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (along with Nicole Holofcener) wrote the movie’s screenplay in addition to starring here and they may well have been better served by dipping out of the project once the writing is done because there is kind of something odd about seeing these two Boston bros hanging out in Medieval France in a way that might have been less jarring if they weren’t both there. They also aren’t helped by some rather strange hairstyling ideas, which I’m sure sounds like a ridiculously superficial thing to harp on but seeing Affleck with a bleached blonde goatee and Damon with a sort of mullet and a moustache-less beard is distracting. It just is. I have reason to think this follicle decision is actually historically accurate but it doesn’t feel that way and Adam Driver seemed to get away with his usual shoulder length locks and his co-stars may have been better served being similarly lazy.
As for Ridley Scott’s own direction, I’d say it’s mostly solid but he is at a stage in his career where he isn’t really doing much to surprise his audience. Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is very in line with other films he’s made with Scott and aside from the structure (which is not insignificant) this does probably feel of a piece with Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood. In this sense Scott is perhaps simultaneously the most perfect and most imperfect person to direct a movie like this: he’s obviously well positioned to film the titular duel, which is a nicely gritty big of violence but is he really the voice that the film world wants to be commenting on rape culture and #MeToo? Well, on that front he (Thelma and Louise not withstanding) and the epic costume drama genre in general are strange bedfellows for that hot button issue and I think that will make this a bit of a tough sell with both critics and audiences but at the end of the day I think all parties involved acquit themselves pretty nicely. The film is especially impressive by the standards of large scale Hollywood filmmaking: everyone constantly begs for more big budget non-franchise films for adults and this is emphatically that and it’s that done pretty well on top of that.
**** out of Five