The Last Duel (2021)

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

Ridley Scott has hit-or-miss success when it comes to his big-screen epics, but he knows how to build an intense, exciting story toward its dramatic conclusion, regardless of the characters and situations involved. This story is based on a true-life event in France, in which two men fought for the death over an accusation that one of them raped the other man's wife. In a truly compelling way, Scott tells the series of events from three separate perspectives, belonging to the three individuals involved...

An impulsive but heroic man who cannot stand by and watch peasants slaughtered even to hold a bridge for his monarch, Jean de Carroughes (Matt Damon) leads his men into battle and then must return home to defend himself before the local court, and pledge allegiance to their new prince (Ben Affleck). His best friend, Le Gris (Adam Driver), accompanies him... but their friendship forged on the battlefield gets tested when the new prince takes a shine to Le Gris, appoints him to his personal household, and then rewards him with a big swath of land that Jean felt himself entitled to, upon a marriage to the beautiful and wealthy Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Without the profits the land would have given him, the cash-poor lord must return to battle in order to earn a living, leaving his wife at home to tend his estate.

Over several years and through various encounters, he forges a tenuous relationship with Le Gris, due to suing him over property... and then comes home to find out Marguerite claims that his former best friend has raped her. Once convinced of her telling the truth, Jean decides to avenge her by whatever means possible, even if it involves a duel to the death. But as it turns out, there are three sides to every story. His, Le Gris', and hers. The story backtracks to give additional context and scenes to flesh out what the audience knows, and gives them a more nuanced perspective of everyone involved. The power of the story is that it focuses on perspectives defining reality; no one has the exact same way they share the events, and all of them paint their actions as being more altruistic and self-sacrificing than someone else's. We believe Jean is a good man, albeit hard-headed, start to see the cracks appear in Le Gris' interpretation of his reckless and arrogant behavior, and come to dislike him through the eyes of his wife.

That's where the story is the most powerful... but the script undermines itself by having such an obvious agenda. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the script together, perhaps to make up for their previous accusations beneath the #MeToo movement, and the influence is obvious, that they are battling against the exploitation of women, while exploiting them (subjecting their lead actress to a rape scene twice, and random female entertainers to nude scenes for 'sexposition' purposes, where nudity and sexuality frame the background of a "talking" scene). The bias is obvious: all men in this story are unpardonable scum (or just plain insane), while the women is a victim of all of them. A more balanced view would have had a loving marriage between Jean and Marguerite, rather than assuming the position that she is a victim of everyone. She needs to make more mistakes, and the men need more good traits to balance out their bad ones, for there to be a villain rather than everyone being a villain in their own way.

That being said, I enjoyed the film for what it was, found it incredibly compelling, and was very impressed by the acting performances. Driver has the ability to be a great dramatic actor, if they would just let him. He makes Le Gris somehow likable and even sympathetic, while still being heinous as a person. Affleck hams it up as a sadistic, sex-obsessed prince, but he seems too modern for the role. Damon is good, but undermined by his terrible mullet. The costumes are wonderful, the sets lure you into the time period, and there are a lot of familiar faces among the minor characters. The score is also excellent, and it has one of the best lead-ups to a climax that I have ever seen. By the time you reach the duel, you know the terrible consequences of her loss or her husband's death, so you are on the edge of your seat. It's at times deeply uncomfortable to watch, but, agenda aside, one of the best directorial works in many years.

Sexual Content
Several clothed sex scenes within a marriage in which the woman is clearly not having a good time (movement, and noise); a graphic rape is shown from two different perspectives, one of them much more violent and prolonged than the other (he chases her around the room, throws her on the bed, turns her over, and assaults her, while she screams and cries, then tells her not to tell anyone); people question whether a woman is being 'pleased' in bed or not, since she has not conceived; and accuse her of having enjoyed herself during the assault (therefore making it "not-rape"). The prince has orgies in his private chambers; we see a man chase a woman around and start to have sex with her, before the prince throws another girl down beside him and climbs on top of her. In one scene, four or five naked women kiss and touch each other in the background, while two men have a serious conversation; we see full frontal nudity on one, as she comes to entice them into the fun (he tells his guest to stop thinking about serious things, and take off his pants). A stallion mounts a mare until they beat him off her (off-screen). A man hears that his wife has been raped, and then tells her to give him sex. Another woman confesses to having been raped, and is angry that this woman did not just "get on with her life." A corpse is stripped naked and hung up in front of the public -- we see full frontal male nudity from a distance.
 
Language:
A handful of not-period-authentic f-words and a few abuses of deity, uses of bastard, etc.
 
Violence:
A woman is raped (see above for details). A man beats a stallion off a horse with a shovel (not-shown, but we see the mare has bloody marks on her flank where his hooves cut her). Many brief but graphically violent battle scenes in which men are skewered, beheaded, shot with arrows, and dismembered. A man chokes his wife after she accuses another man of rape, almost making it so she can't breathe, while demanding to know if she enticed him. A man has another man beaten in the background, while speaking to his lord. The ending duel is incredibly brutal -- the two men strike each other with lances, and impale one of the horses, before fighting hand-to-hand. They cut each other up, stabbing each other below their armor, before one forces a knife through the other one's mouth; the camera lingers a long time on his dead face as blood pools around his head. A woman is told that if her husband loses the duel, they will burn her alive, and that it can often take "up to twenty minutes" to die in such a manner.

Other:
There are "woke" feminist motivations at work, in how the men are all abhorrent pigs while the heroine is pure, sweet, and a victim of the men around her. Modern day values creep into the story, by giving them, especially the woman, a modern mindset rather than one suited to the 1300s.