Few directors have the pedigree in genre fiction that Ridley Scott has. From “Alien” to “Blade Runner” to “Gladiator,” Scott has proven himself as one of the strongest, most consistent directors when it comes to big-budget, genre movies. His films often feel like a unique vision despite big studio backing. Scott’s newest film, “The Last Duel,” sees him return to medieval times, this time focusing on late 1300s France.
Ridley Scott mainly made a name for himself in science fiction. In just his second feature film, Scott directed the science fiction classic “Alien” in 1979. The film was and still is a huge hit and would, on its own, make Ridley Scott a legendary director. But, Scott kept going. Just three years later, he put out another science fiction classic: “Blade Runner.” At this point, Scott mostly turned to developing historical epics, which has been his bread and butter for the remainder of his career. However, Scott has not completely abandoned science fiction, with his more recent projects including the ever-underrated “Alien” prequels “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant” as well as 2015’s “The Martian,” for which he was nominated for Best Picture. Even if you only consider Scott’s science fiction credits, he would still be among the top voices in genre movies.
However, science fiction is just a slice of Scott’s overall work. In 2001, Scott directed the smash-hit “Gladiator.” It was huge at the box office, won Best Picture and saw Scott himself get a Best Director nomination. Scott seems to have been trying to recapture that acclaim again and again, with limited success. Scott directed the 2005 Crusade epic “Kingdom of Heaven,” 2010 “Robin Hood,” and the 2014 “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” all to mixed results at best. Of course, Scott is no stranger to non-genre dramas (“Thelma and Louise,” “American Gangster” and the upcoming “House of Gucci”), but he is certainly predominantly known for science fiction and historical genre movies, specifically. Scott once again goes the historical epic route this year with “The Last Duel,” which has an estimated budget of $100 million.
“The Last Duel” is the story of the final legally sanctioned duel in late 1300s France. The story is told from three different characters’ perspectives: knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), his friend turned enemy Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) and Carrouges’s wife Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer). Carrouges and Le Gris find themselves in a progressively increasing rivalry that culminates in Le Gris being accused of the raping of Marguerite. The two men duel to have the truth be determined in “the eyes of God.” Each perspective is different.
“The Last Duel” truly lives up to Ridley Scott’s name. The film has a sense of scale that few historical movies manage to achieve. The sound, production design and cinematography bring the world of medieval France to life in a way that few others are able to accomplish. This is especially noticeable in the battle scenes, which obviously includes the titular duel at the end of the film. The actual duel itself is easily one of the best scenes in cinema this year. It’s tense, brutal, exciting and absolutely satisfies the two hours of build-up it is given. The credit to the strong visuals and feel of the film has to go to Ridley Scott’s direction as he reels the audience in making this one of the best spectacles he’s accomplished since “Gladiator.”
Scott also directs his actors to some incredible performances. Damon and Driver are both good in their lead roles and do well to change their behavior depending on the perspective. It is Jodie Comer, however, who really takes over the film, tackling a potentially difficult role in Marguerite with surprising restraint and expert precision. Ben Affleck also appears in a supporting role, stealing every scene he is in as the Lord Pierre d’Alençon. Affleck shines as the only bit of levity in this otherwise exceedingly grim movie.
All of the pieces are there, but “The Last Duel” does not quite manage to go from good to great. The biggest issue is with how the subject of rape is handled in the film. The movie has good intentions and is nominally about Marguerite telling her truth and the difficulties that survivors have coming forward with their stories. In execution, it’s a little bit muddy. Marguerite easily has the smallest role among the three leads. A whole third of the movie is dedicated to Le Gris, her rapist. For a movie that is supposed to be about her, she clearly takes a backseat to the male leads. Admittedly, this could be an intentional choice to mirror the way rape survivors are often treated, but if that is the case the film does not always illustrate this effectively.
The worst part of this issue is the scene in which the actual rape takes place, which is unecessarily brutal and showy. I kept expecting it to cut away but it shows it in its entirety with excruciating detail. It is understandable what the movie is going for, but portraying something like this in this explicit manner feels inexcusable. No movie needs to do that. For all the intensity it delivers to this story, it still does not cover the topic in a manner that adds anything new to the discussion. I couldn’t help but feel that “The Last Duel” would have been best served as a story of two rivals’ growing intensity. He could have used a different inciting incident to turn the feud into a duel to the death if it wasn’t going to cover the topic of rape, well. As it stands, the poor examination of rape, while done in a good effort of solidarity, ultimately ends up distracting from what is potentially good about the movie.
“The Last Duel” is an admirable attempt at a big-budget historical epic from a director who is well versed at that kind of movie. In an age of superheroes and franchises, it’s a welcome change. Unfortunately, the film’s reach exceeds its grasp in its story. The film’s excellent craft is likely enough to have it keep some value even if it is not able to achieve its potential.
“The Last Duel” is now playing in theaters.
By Ben Lindner