The Last Duel is another win for Scott, an agreeably brutal, wickedly incisive tale that is considerably more substantive than mere Rashomon comps.
Blending his lavish but gritty historical epics like Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven with the sorta-high-concept pop feminism of G.I. Jane or Thelma & Louise, Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel manages to be an excellent synthesis of his stylistic and narrative tics, with rousing action beats peppered throughout period drama that’s tinged with modern sensibilities and bleak humor. This, all somehow without feeling like it’s pandering to establish its representational bona-fides. Co-written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (who also co-star), with an enormous contribution from Nicole Holofcener, the film begins in plague-ridden, war-torn France in the 1380s, where Jean de Carrouges (Damon) saves the life of Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) during a losing battle. The bonds of friendship begin to fray soon after, though, as Le Gris finds far more favor from their lord Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck) and de Carrouges marries Marguerite de Thibouville (Jodie Comer), daughter of a disgraced nobleman in need of a convenient marriage (to preserve her father’s property rights).
Much has been made of the film’s Rashomon-esque structure, but while it’s told in triptych form, with each chapter from a different character’s POV, it’s far from the distinct swapping of perspectives that make up Kurosawa’s film. Here, the shifts are slightly more ambiguous changes in attitude and motivation rather than events. When the eponymous duel’s catalyzing event — a sexual assault — finally takes place, it crucially is never depicted as anything but an act of cruelty and violation.
Given the dramatic heft, it follows that a lot of the film is performance-dependent, and thankfully, everyone is firing on all cylinders. De Carrouges’ initial chapter sees a mulleted Damon as a gruff but justly aggrieved soldier as well as a clueless but steadfast husband, sincere in his feelings of betrayal towards Le Gris, while Driver is appropriately two-faced as an honorable friend at first before his own chapter reveals a jealous, narcissistic libertine. Affleck, meanwhile, is in full mega-mode as their prickly master, playing the fickle lord routine to the hilt. Still, it’s Comer who has to do most of the truly heavy lifting; Marguerite begins as a mousy but devoted wife who understands little of the quarrels of the men around her, only to be revealed as a canny, capable woman who fully understands her place in this world of men even as she’s endlessly betrayed by it. Everybody might be doing different accents, but they’re still all on the same page.
Scott, of course, is an old hand at juggling all of this. His battle scenes are typically a bit cluttered, but that seems at peace with the multiple points of view on display, and when the final battle takes place, it’s exceptionally clear and agreeably brutal. What’s more, he’s balanced the drama in such a way that even though all those participating might be rooting for one of the two duelists (see what I did there?), the audience only knows of one acceptable outcome for Marguerite, and when the ending comes, it’s notable that literally nobody else in the film seems to care what happens to her, only the vindication of the reputations of the men who used her as a bargaining chip.