At the end of Ridley Scott’s 1977 film The Duellists—a historical drama set in various 19th century European locales from Strasbourg to Moscow to Paris—a French soldier who has been defeated in pistols-at-dawn combat prepares to accept his fate, only to have the victor spare his life. Instead of actually meeting his maker, he’s informed that he must “conduct [himself] as a dead man”; this stay of execution is also a life sentence, and it gives the movie’s finale a metaphysical sting. A beautifully produced period piece made in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, The Duellists simultaneously mythologizes and mocks the kind of alpha-male striver who, in demanding one kind of satisfaction, engineers his own seething exile from the world. In the final shot, the loser is shown gazing hopelessly into the void, unfulfilled and bristling in anticipation of a rematch that will never come.
The big story about Scott’s new movie The Last Duel will be its opening weekend, a $4.8 million gross against a $100 million budget. But look beyond the box office at the movie itself and you’ll see something more fascinating than a simple flop or unsuccessful Oscar bait; it’s a veteran director’s attempt to impose some symmetry on a sprawling, uneven career. Since breaking into Hollywood at the end of the ’70s as a transplanted ad man hawking Chanel no. 5 with a hypnotic visual style, Scott has experimented with virtually every kind of high-concept blockbuster imaginable, from police procedurals to pastoral fantasies to biblical epics to serial-killer thrillers. His prolificness is the stuff of legend, and so is his efficiency, while his overall batting average is probably around .300—which, given his home runs (Blade Runner, Alien, Gladiator) is enough to make the hall of fame.
In recent years, Scott has both gotten weirder—i.e., The Counselor, a 21st century cult classic boasting more gory decapitations than perhaps any movie ever made—and returned to his own primal scenes, most explicitly via Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. By executive producing Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, Scott not only symbolically passed the franchise torch but also bestowed approval on a director who in many ways seems to be his aesthetic successor. By talking shit about Noah Hawley’s proposed TV revamp of Alien, he’s refusing eviction from the hallowed grounds of his own intellectual property.
The question of whether Scott is a true artist or simply a monogrammed mercenary remains very much open. There’s a difference between a visual sense and a worldview, and Scott’s great eye doesn’t save him when he’s got brain-dead material. The Last Duel, though, is full of ideas, which could be one reason it suffered at multiplexes (especially in contrast to the lobotomized Halloween Kills). Once you pick through the clutter of its authorship—the script by costars Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, with an assist by Nicole Holofcener, is adapted from a nonfiction 2004 book by Eric Jager—those ideas prove worthy of contemplation. On a purely conceptual level, this is the headiest movie Scott’s made in a long time, one which shows him exercising his atrophied muscles as a dramatist and storyteller and flexing some new ones as a social critic.
Of course, this being a Scott movie, there will be some spectacle, and one of the sharpest things about The Last Duel is how it folds issues of showmanship into its narrative. Like Gladiator, with its CGI coliseum backdrops, barely suppressed showbiz allegory, and confrontationally self-reflexive catchphrase—“Are you not entertained?”—The Last Duel takes stock of our ravenous, collective appetite for bread and circuses. The opening scene, set in 1386, is a structural fake-out, swiftly setting up the standing-room-only excitement of the scheduled contest between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). The latter has been charged with rape by Carrouges’s wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), an accusation that puts her honor at stake; if her husband loses, it’ll be taken as evidence—divine or otherwise—that she’s borne false witness against an innocent man.
The sequence has the vibe of a sporting event, all giddy big-game anticipation and atmosphere. But just as our stars lunge at each other, the script loops back to fill in the combatants’ backstories.
Actually, it does this several times: The Last Duel is an epic that keeps going to instant replay. The first third of the movie tells the story from the point of view of Carrouges, a loyal and headstrong knight of the realm who respects Le Gris as a warrior while berating his subordinate status as a squire. The latter man is a favorite of the local royal underlord, the sybaritic and thoroughly obnoxious Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), and is granted land and title rights denied to Carrouges for no reason beyond the Count’s arbitrary distaste. (If Ben and Matt aren’t going to cast themselves in a romantic comedy, playing dudes who despise each other on sight and talk shit for two and a half hours is the next best thing.)
Thick-skulled, repulsively mulletted, and bearing a nasty scar on his cheek to go with the chip on his shoulder, Carrouges is hardly a poster boy for romantic chivalry. When he proposes marriage to Marguerite, he doesn’t exactly sweep her off her feet; given her family’s financial situation, it’s literally an offer she can’t refuse, and the modest spoils of her dowry accrue to his cause. Damon’s willingness to play the character as essentially unlikable, even in the section that ostensibly accepts the nature of his grievances against Le Gris and d’Alencon, is to his credit as an actor who trusts his material. Carrouges’s righteousness is persuasive, but it’s also tinged with spite, and when the storytelling perspective shifts to Le Gris, we don’t so much get a different version of events à la Rashomon—the movie that’s been regularly and inevitably invoked in other reviews—as a fuller vision of the same narrative.
Carrouges is still an asshole in Part 2, but it’s not as if Driver plays a saint either. Le Gris is guilty by his association with Affleck’s preening, high-camp bad boy, a memorable repulsive portrait of arrogance. “Take your fucking pants off,” he smirks during one of the behind-closed-doors orgies that belie his status as a family man; grinning and mincing beneath a bottle-blond dye job and leading with what Gone Girl memorably inscribed as his “villainous chin,” Affleck is an actor with his eye on the prize (and he has my vote). Hopped up on his own dark suavity, Le Gris is more of a natural ladies man than his patron, and he knows it. When the squire steals a kiss from Marguerite—offered at Carrouges’s behest, as a gesture of truce—he’s instantly convinced that she’s fallen in love at first sight, and goes to see her while her husband is away.
It’s crucial to The Last Duel’s narrative and rhetorical strategies that in Carrouges’s version of events, we don’t actually see Le Gris forcing himself on Marguerite. His character is so defined by jealousy and resentment that the act is even more devastating as a structuring absence—an event left to his imagination. When we’re in Le Gris’s narrative, though, the encounter with Marguerite is rendered determinedly—and disturbingly—ambiguous, not just as a provocation but as a byproduct of the character’s blinkered perspective. Imposing himself slowly and emphasizing his romantic intentions, Le Gris doesn’t imagine himself a villain, and interprets the convulsive, tearful refusals of the woman before him as a passionate, performative tease.
It’s not until Part 3 that Comer’s character is granted some subjectivity, which is, of course, the point of the film (and the point at which Holofcener takes over storytelling duties). Not only does Part 3 remove any confusion about the nature of Le Gris and Marguerite’s encounter, but it lets us see Scott’s flawed duellists—and the movie as a whole—for what they really are. Carrouges isn’t just an oaf but an egomaniac who impulsively risks his fate as well as Marguerite’s by pursuing a judicial duel. Le Gris, who strenuously maintains his innocence, is at best deluded about his rights as a lover and at worst every bit the sniveling conniver his rival imagines, treating Marguerite’s virtue as one more thing he can steal.
What’s indicted in The Last Duel isn’t just the stubborn, self-destructive vanity of two men looking for any excuse to go toe-to-toe (and finding it), but an intractable legal system in which church and state are locked in a death grip. Noting that Marguerite is now with child, an advocate for Le Gris smirks that her delicate condition absolves his client, since it’s common medical knowledge that women can’t get pregnant by rape. (It’s a barely veiled, palpably contemporary reference to Todd Akin.) Denied a fair hearing, branded a whore by Le Gris’s supporters, and reduced to a prop in a very public pageant, Marguerite is forced to stand by her man, recasting our view of the duel itself from cathartic, bone-breaking spectacle to one woman’s emotional and ethical ordeal.
At this point, you probably want to know: In a movie called The Last Duel, is the last duel any good? The answer is yes, although again, Scott is being thoughtful about the nature of his showmanship, lacing the climax’s brutal, bloodthirsty satisfactions with a distinctly bitter aftertaste. What oozes through the gory choreography is a genuine sense of futility, which transcends the period-piece trappings as surely as the critique of gender politics resonates in the present tense. In the end, the film is tragic without being sentimental; we feel bad without mourning anyone in particular. As in The Duellists, satisfaction proves not only elusive but contradictory, and it’s once again clear that for men so fully consumed by hate, there are fates worse than death. Although it should be said: When death does come in the form of an extremely R-rated money shot, it really, really sucks, yielding an image that ranks with Scott’s most memorable ever, a grim tableau imprinted indelibly on the mind’s eye.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.