There is not a single scene in The Last Duel where Jodie Comer does not look like a poreless Medieval oil painting come to life. And in the very same film, during the very same 14th century time period, there is not a single instance wherein Ben Affleck doesn’t look like he founded Virgin Records in 1972, or maybe owns the Las Vegas Raiders at this very moment. If the Oscars had a category for Best, Tiniest, Most Flaxen Hued Chin-Beard in a Motion Picture, then Ben Affleck would have this year’s award in the bag. But on the off chance that category doesn’t get vetted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in time for the next ceremony, Ben will simply have to settle for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar come spring 2022.
We’re all familiar with Ben Affleck, right? He was in School Ties? Wrote Good Will Hunting with his best friend Matt Damon? Is Batman?
If this is ringing any bells, then you probably know that Ben Affleck is a movie star. He has been for decades, and that long and dynamic career has also made his personal life something of a public commodity. Whether he’s getting back together with Jennifer Lopez (who is also a movie star), or having a man who looks like his brother Casey Affleck (also a movie star) put a life-size cutout of his ex-girlfriend Ana de Armas (hold on to your hats—also a movie star) in the trash can outside his home, Ben’s is a life that we’re always craving a peek inside of. And in The Last Duel, his many years spent fine-tuning his craft and giving the public a middle finger with one hand while juggling a Dunkin’ iced coffee in the other have finally collided in a performance—and a beard—that no one could have seen coming.
The Last Duel marks the first time Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have scripted a movie together since the Oscar-winning (non-beard category) Good Will Hunting in 1997. Along with cowriter Nicole Holofcener, Damon and Affleck’s Last Duel screenplay tells the true story of Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), who accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, which results in France’s last sanctioned duel-to-the-death in 1386 between Le Gris and Marguerite’s husband, Jean.
Under the direction of Ridley Scott, The Last Duel transitions between the individual perspectives of “the truth according to” Jean, then Jacques, and finally, Marguerite. And your opinion on this film likely lives and dies on two things: (1) Whether you find the subtle changes in each perspective—a kiss that each person interprets differently, shoes being coyly slipped off vs. falling off in an attempted escape, a slight vocal variance in the phrase “I missed you more than you know”—entertaining enough to watch the same scenes three times over, and (2) Whether you think showing a brutal rape scene play out twice on-screen is necessary to tell the story of how rape culture has persisted for centuries. If those are two things you can take, you’ll love The Last Duel. If they’re not … you’ll still love Ben Affleck in The Last Duel.
You’ll notice Benny Boy wasn’t mentioned in that description of the plot, and that’s because he’s the living embodiment of the old saying: You either die a movie star, or live long enough to see yourself become a character actor (who is still a movie star). Ben plays Count Pierre d’Alencon, under whom Jean and Jacques are both squires until Pierre takes a stronger liking to Jacques’s intelligence and, uh, vitality, and decides to start giving him all of Jean’s lands and castles and shit. We’ve seen Ben play the hero; we’ve seen him play the villain; we’ve seen him play the accountant turned trained killing machine. But, as it turns out, my favorite kind of Ben Affleck performance (non-Dunkin’ category) is as a guy who mercilessly and indulgently fucks with Matt Damon.
There is not a single moment in The Last Duel featuring Affleck’s Pierre when he is not calling Damon’s Jean a cuck. Except for the moment when he sees that Jean—a litigious medieval drag, if ever there was one—is suing him for a second time, at which point he briefly defers to calling him a different C-word.
Now, I really dug the movie’s tripartite structure, but it is a bold decision to give the first 40 minutes of your $100 million movie to your most boring, mulletted character’s POV. It’s the first of Ridley Scott’s many wild decisions that ultimately pay off, including but not limited to the fact that Adam Driver just gets to just wear his regular hot-guy hair in various lengths throughout the film while Matt Damon looks like he is absolutely begging you not to break his achy-breaky heart for two and a half hours. But that’s why, after slogging through Jean’s memory of events wherein he perceives himself a hero who isn’t getting nearly enough recognition (at one point he shushes a crowd to watch him get knighted and then no one claps, like he’s the medieval Jeb Bush) it’s all the more exhilarating when Affleck finally shows up in Jacque’s recounting of events.
Now, it would be misleading to say that Ben Affleck steals The Last Duel. After all, Jodie Comer is the lead in this movie, and I dare anyone to steal a movie from Jodie Comer. But while Marguerite’s third and final chapter is by far the most interesting one, we still need the Jean and Jacques chapters to round out the film’s overall message: Men really ain’t shit, historically speaking. And Ben Affleck’s performance as Pierre is a big—huge!—part of that message.
In a film that otherwise hinges on subtle changes in body language and line readings, Pierre is the only consistency throughout all three perspectives. And that consistency is that everyone understands him to be a pompous, imperious asshole with just enough power to make or break the lives of the people beneath him. In fact, by the time we get to Marguerite’s recounting of events, Pierre is hardly on-screen at all. Because patriarchal power doesn’t have to be present to get it’s wine-stained fingers all over the destruction of a woman’s life. And Ben plays that insidious entitlement perfectly, while managing to not get a single drop of blood on any of his silken fineries during this brutal battle to the death.
As with all good art, it’s necessary to break this performance down to its component parts to understand how he does it, which in my mind boils down to four things.
The Ben Affleck of It All
IRL, Ben Affleck is known for his quick vacillations between charming movie star and sadboy—a sampler platter of personas he made sure to bring with him to The Last Duel premiere. On this very website, Josh Gondelman wrote that the public has always related to Ben Affleck most when he is “in the throes of visible discomfort.” For the past few years, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Ben’s giant, expressive face brooding and serious, whether it’s in intrusive paparazzi shots or his most recent performances as Batfleck.
So it is shocking when a very blond Ben comes roaring onto the big screen pompously reading Latin and barking at Adam Driver to “take [his] fucking pants off” like an overgrown frat boy. Part of the thrill of Affleck playing this baudy supporting character is that it’s the inverse of that relatable discomfort we’ve come to expect; Pierre lives in the blissful comfort that only entitlement, power, and a complete lack of social media can bring. As a Count, he’s too big to fail, but too small to get beheaded, so he might as well manipulate others’ rises and falls as his playthings. He is the Chuck Bass of 14th century France—and he does it all with Season 1 Joffrey Baratheon hair and a tiny corn muffin adhered to his chin.
The Matt and Ben of It All
The funnest part of observing Ben Affleck’s life and movie stardom has always been his li’l friendship with fellow movie star Matt Damon. Grown man best friends? We love to see it! Do they text? Does one of them use more emoji than the other? Do they get annoyed with one another? Who’s more needy? Do they know their Enneagram types? Do they ever wear one giant shirt?
And maybe the best part of The Last Duel is knowing that, 100 percent of the time, when Ben and Matt write a movie together, Ben is probably like, “Hey bro, what if you’re the thankless lead, and I’ll just settle for the little ol’ (MUCH MORE FUN) supporting character who says ‘fuck’ a lot?” How doth thou enjoy them apples? Of course, the difference between Ben’s role in Good Will Hunting and his role in The Last Duel is that whereas Chuckie loved Will fiercely, Pierre would love nothing more than to receive the news that Jean has been struck through the eyeball with a flaming arrow in service of the King, so that he might stop busting into his otherwise-fun dinner parties to drop his wet blanket all over everyone and tell them that they have to call him “Sir” now because he got a knight’s medal.
To see Ben Affleck in a blond pageboy, repeatedly and viciously unleashing his contempt on Matt Damon, who is sporting the haircut of a 1980s MLB relief pitcher, is already so funny. But to know that they wrote these lines together is just too good. Is there any truth to Ben’s Pierre whining, “He’s no fucking fun!” when Jacques briefly tries to get Pierre to be nicer to Jean? Did Matt have to open a little attachment in a little email and see that Ben had written that line about him-I-mean-his-character? Or is Matt the ultimate good sport, writing all of Pierre’s most vicious lines for Jean himself? All I know is that Ben improvised barking, “Clos-ER!” to Matt in their very first scene together, when Matt was already kneeling before him, pledging his fealty. Not for nothing, but that same article says that they almost kissed on the mouth in this movie, to which I say: OK, more 14th century projects for our Boston boys, please!
Speaking of Boston: After learning a little more about the real story that inspired The Last Duel, you may be wondering whether Ben Affleck is speaking fluent French in the film. Reader, he is not. Incredibly, no one is! Some of the extras occasionally sing English songs in French accents, but as for the main characters playing French noblemen and women, everyone is speaking English with a sort of half-commitment to a British accent in every other scene. As for Ben, I think the goal is just to sound … rich? It is somehow both Boston and British, and it’s a lot of lower teeth work.
But it’s best not to dwell too much on the accent, because everything else about how Ben is delivering these lines is perfect. If I told you that Ben Affleck whipped open a bedroom door to find a concerned-looking Adam Driver and immediately told him to take his pants off, it might sound silly. But it’s not. It’s just a man who can’t imagine caring about anything or anyone the way that his friend does right now, so he listens for a few seconds while Jacques complains, tells him to shut up because he’s going to appoint him as a military captain the very next day, and then barks once more for Jacques to “take [his] fucking pants off.” Then he turns around, and quite literally swan dives into a pile of women.
Ultimately, Adam Driver takes his fucking pants off.
After watching The Last Duel, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Ben Affleck bringing this performance out of what’s on the page, but before watching The Last Duel, it also would have been hard to imagine Ben Affleck doing it. And while Ben inviting Adam Driver into an orgy really is a moment for the record books, my favorite line reading has to be when Pierre drunkenly barges into Jacques’s office in an attempt to convince him not to go to a party with Jean de Carrouges. Jacques appeases Pierre by letting him clown on Jean for a little bit, but then he tells him he’s still going to go to the party. So, when Pierre turns to leave the office, he picks up the abacus Jacques has been working on and, without warning, slams it down on the ground and screams, “RECALCULATE!”
Pierre never turns around, but just before he exits, he throws a hand up and quietly adds: “Sorry!” Because, unlike the other prolific assholes in this story, Pierre at least knows he’s an asshole. It’s kind of, like ... his whole thing. (As it may be for the actor playing him?)
I’ve long held the belief that the best movie stars have giant heads, and while there may be a few actors who are even more famous or more skilled than Ben Affleck, absolutely no one has a bigger head than him. So what I never could have imagined is that by simply dying the coif of hair that sits atop Affleck’s head Nilla Wafer–yellow, making it even less clear where the head begins and ends, Ben could launch himself into an entirely new realm of stardom.
As a human with eyes, do I recognize that Ben as Pierre looks like every girl who’s ever quit America’s Next Top Model because Tyra Banks made them get the Rosemary’s Baby cut to show off their bone structure and/or psychologically torture them? Sure. Of course I do. But I’m also here to tell you that, just like those weeping amateur models, Ben looks hot like this. I swear, he looks hot like this!
I’m willing to concede, however, that some of that physical appeal might have to do with the rest of the lewk Ben is sporting in The Last Duel. Whereas Jean is always ready to head into battle at a moment’s notice (don’t even get me started on how he’s always ripping chain mail on and off those luscious locks when I can barely walk under a low-hanging tree limb without losing a small chunk of my scalp), and Jacques is at least sporting his middle-management leathers in order to hit the pavement collecting rents, Count Pierre has never seen a hard day’s work in his life. He is perpetually decked out in gilded jackets and jacquard cloaks—Nicole Kidman in The Undoing wishes her coats were this decadent—and in his more intimate moments, he simply Winnie the Poohs it around his castle in a linen tunic.
In possibly my favorite Pierre scene, he ambles onto the roof after a night of partying to talk to Jacques about how fun it is that they like the same books and also group sex, all while they’re both wrapped in giant quilts. Truly, Pierre is one oversized steaming mug away from completing the “White Woman’s Instagram” trifecta. But when your cousin is the King of France, there’s no real need for armor, or even pants. Your power is your protection. Or, as Affleck told EW while trying to convince himself that the haircut Ridley Scott had informed him he’d be wearing in the film wasn’t going to drive the whole project into the ground: “It’s about representing power. I am the patriarchy, the power structure, all of these things embodied in this character, and visually, from the way I was dressed, adorned, and the hair.”
Indeed, Pierre is all patriarchy power-smirk riiiight up until the moment—700-year-old spoiler warning—that he watches his bestie eat a sword like it’s a churro. It is just stunning that Pierre’s solid advice of “Deny, deny, deny, everywhere, always, and to all men” didn’t work. But Pierre forgot something: Jacques can’t deny anything to the woman who knows the truth and never stopped telling it.
Suck it, Pierre. I pledge my fealty to Blond Ben.
Jodi Walker is a freelance pop culture writer with bylines in Entertainment Weekly, Vulture, and Texas Monthly. She writes about The Bachelor franchise at absurd length in her newsletter, These Are The Best Things.