The faint blue tint of the imagery and the sounds of grunts and clangs of swordplay should all be immediate signifiers. Such attributes all betray the return of Ridley Scott to the crumbling castles and muddy battlefields of a distantly bygone Europe. Yet The Last Duel, his latest act of time travel, is archaic only in garb and speech. The setting may be the 14th century, but this is very much a historical drama that percolates in modern concerns. Damningly, it suggests that yesterday’s injustices remain very much today’s. Adapted from Eric Jager’s novel of the same title, Scott tackles a matter of enduring international fascination: the last judicial duel sanctioned in France, circa 1386. That year, Norman knight Jean de Carrouges challenged his one-time friend, the squire Jacques Le Gris, to trial by combat. Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite, had accused Le Gris of rape the previous January. Le Gris flatly denied the allegations. The battle to the death between the men drew an enormous audience of Parisian aristocrats and commoners, and it continues to be recounted and reenacted centuries later. Part of what’s kept the incident alive in the public imagination is the question of guilt, still a subject of historical debate. Who was telling the truth, and who was lying?
For a while, The Last Duel roams the ground of possible uncertainty. It also takes care to lay out how the conflict between the men extended beyond the accusations. Introduced fighting side by side, Carrouges (Matt Damon) and Le Gris (Adam Driver) are fast friends whose bond is tested and ultimately broken by a series of disputes involving contested property, an expected captaincy, and the favor of the count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), cousin of the king. Is social standing the subtext of their falling-out? Carrouges is revealed to be a combative hothead whose habit of suing fellow noblemen damages his chances at leadership. Meanwhile, the cocky, womanizing Le Gris proves more adept and strategic in his public manner. Damon and Affleck share the writing credits of The Last Duel with filmmaker Nicole Holofcener. And the three intriguingly divide writing duties by character, and their story into three competing, overlapping chapters: “The truth according to” Carrouges, Le Gris, and, finally, Marguerite. This is, of course, a variation on that most beloved, influential ode to subjectivity, Rashomon, in which the great Akira Kurosawa spun a samurai story of contradictory accounts. The Last Duel doesn’t so much shift the basic facts of its plot as subtly alter their context and meaning. Each of the three chapters depicts events only discussed in the others, and repeated scenes play much differently depending on whose perspective is dominant.
Performance is the clear key to such an approach, and the film offers its principal cast the chance to essentially trifurcate their characters — to play them based on how they see themselves and how others see them. That range is most obvious with Damon, who projects a kind of aggrieved nobility in the first chapter (told, naturally, from his character’s point of view), only to become embarrassingly ineffectual and finally coldly distant as the lens of perspective changes. Driver’s charisma fluctuates throughout to reveal how predatory behavior gets delusionally twisted into something more romantic through self-image, while Comer plays a mere object of attraction until the moment that she passes out of the male gaze and into the spotlight of the narrative. (Only Affleck creates a consistent persona — a stuck-up and perpetually amused dick that counts among the actor’s funniest performances in years.)
It takes a while to realize that The Last Duel is not using its, well, dueling perspectives to reinforce the neutrality of the historical record. Instead, it’s essentially offering a critique of the way the history books have pushed a skeptical he-said, she-said framework on this story. Jager’s research cast doubt on the doubt that historians had sown regarding the guilt or innocence of certain parties. The movie, in turn, refuses to revel in ambiguity, instead offering an eventual, clear-cut presentation of events — most notably, and disturbingly, through two dramatizations of a horrible encounter, different not in what happens but in how it’s remembered by the characters. Rashomon was about the essential unknowability of the truth. The Last Duel is about how treating the truth as always unknowable can be a trick for many to avoid accountability.
There are limitations to such a structure, though. Damon, Affleck, and Holofcener save Marguerite’s perspective for last, in part so it can function like a damning rejoinder to the chapters before it — the woman’s side of the story, finally presented after two hours of the men’s narrow views. Yet that choice leaves Comer a little dramatically adrift: While Damon and Driver are gifted complicated (if ultimately unsympathetic) characters, she’s strategically denied much dimension until the home stretch — and by then, the film is focused almost entirely on her bravery as a victim stuck in a system stacked against her. The movie struggles as much as Carrouges and Le Gris do to really see Marguerite, at least outside the context of her ordeal.
Still, there’s a power to this film’s blunt era-crossing rage. The Last Duel resists reducing the immortal, historical events it depicts as some vision of the long-ago past, to be easily scoffed at and dismissed, à la the barbaric practices of Gladiator’s colosseum. Watching Marguerite be pushed through a gauntlet of skeptical questioning, her resistance waved off as the “customary protest” of a lady, it’s impossible not to think of the countless other women faced with the threat of immolation, literal or otherwise, for coming forward. Scott, of course, eventually delivers the eponymous duel, and it’s as tense as it is grimly violent, with stakes far greater than which of these flawed men will emerge with his head and ego intact. But by that point, the possibility of a rousing climax, let alone a happy ending, has long since passed, like the people swallowed by history and its distorting ambiguities. Even as The Last Duel enmeshes itself within its share of comedy, the unforgiving milieu that surrounds it, presents a genuine unmasking of mythologized nobility that uncannily sneaks up on you.
The Last Duel is playing in Theaters nationwide