This review of “The Last Duel” was first published after the film’s premiere at September’s Venice Film Festival.
If you examine Ridley Scott’s filmography, the 83-year-old director has never made the same film twice: Following his breakout with the peerlessly suspenseful sci-fi thriller “Alien,” he traded aliens for alienation in “Blade Runner,” followed by explorations of myriad genres in films like “Thelma & Louise,” “Hannibal,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Martian.”
The whodunit makes it into his filmography with “The Last Duel”: Adapting Eric Jager’s 2004 nonfiction book with screenwriters Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, Scott spins a medieval yarn that is by turns gruesome, grotesque, gorgeous, and inconsistent.
The Hundred Years’ War is ravaging France, and knight Jean de Carrouges (Damon) has been away fighting for nearly a year. When Jean returns from battle, he’s perplexed and completely unaware of what’s happened to his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer, “Free Guy”); she claims to have been raped by his best friend and fellow knight, Jacques LeGris (Adam Driver), revealing this news to him over a crackling fire, staring tearfully into his eyes, praying he’ll believe her.
Jean sees that she’s been emotionally scarred, so he decides to trust her and goes to court. Within these early scenes, Scott establishes the whodunnit machinations, using a “Rashomon”-inspired narrative structure to heighten the uncertainty. The films is broken up into three different chapters, each from the POV of a different character.
From Jean’s perspective, Marguerite was raped by Jacques out of jealousy for his wartime accomplishments. In the next chapter, we get a far more ambiguous take, with Jacques believing himself to be innocent even though a brutal rape scene screams otherwise. The final (and least effective) chapter belongs to Marguerite, who rips into dated social norms that place men on a pedestal.
It’s basically “Rashomon” meets “The Nightingale,” with a dash of “Chimes at Midnight” thrown in for good measure. The atmosphere is suitably stark — snow sweeps across empty valleys, human figures are dwarfed under massive castles — and the arena where Jean and Jacques settle their differences is a wintry nightmare. Once again working with cinematographer Daruisz Wolski (“The Martian”), Scott uses his spare surroundings as a metaphor for alienation.
What’s frustrating about “The Last Duel” is a sudden pivot about an hour in that divides the film into two halves: meaningful and mediocre, ambiguous and pointless. If only Scott would stick to the mystery: What makes “Rashomon” work is its ambiguity, as it swaps perspectives but never offers answers. In “The Last Duel,” the perspectives are all the same. Once all three flashbacks are revealed, it’s hard to avoid the feeling you’ve been duped into thinking you’re watching a whodunnit when you’re really watching something else. The third act plays as unsubtle #METOO messaging, with a stab at timeliness that would have landed more effectively had the plot maintained its air of mystery.
Despite the tonal and narrative inconsistencies, the performances are consistently impressive. The film spans multiple years, and the actors handle the weight of grief, loss, trauma and ecstasy over different eras, shifting their emotions according to which flashback they’re in. Damon emerges especially impressive among the ensemble, as he preens like a war hero in his own narrative, only to be mocked and ridiculed in another version of events.
The cinematography underscores his once-great, now-ruined character arc: We see Jean as a heroic figure at first, shot in slow-mo or at low angles, but the film shrinks him as time goes on, pulling the camera back and framing him in the shadow of his contemporaries.
“The Last Duel” showcases Scott’s range as a director and creates a rich and vivid character for Jean; even if it runs out of steam midway through, the film nonetheless marks a valiant effort from a filmmaker who appears ever willing to explore new terrain.
“The Last Duel” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 15.