By John H. Foote
(****) In theatres
Is this Ridley Scott’s year? With two major films coming out over the coming months, placing him right in the middle of awards season, the gifted director might finally win his Oscar for Best Director. Rumblings have started in the trade papers about him being “due”. I always hope the Oscars are given on merit, and quite often they are, but much to my dismay, they sometimes make the sentimental choice. A lot of people felt Scott should have won his Oscar for Gladiator (2000), which won Best Picture that year, but the Academy went with Steven Soderbergh instead for Traffic. I would argue that Gladiator, while an entertaining, big thundering movie, did not deserve Best Picture at all. Along with that, Scott has been nominated in the past for Thelma and Louise (1991), arguably his finest film, and Black Hawk Down (2001). Sadly, for some of his finest films, including Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Matchstick Men (2003), American Gangster (2007) and the wildly entertaining The Martian (2015), he was ignored for a nomination as Best Director.
Scott has a reputation as something of a taskmaster and perfectionist, but it has led to some of the most visually arresting films of the last 40 years. His failures are at the very least interesting, and often visually stunning, but failures nonetheless. Legend (1985) with Tom Cruise and Tim Curry is a much-loved cult film that never found an audience, while 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) is a bloated mess of a film about Columbus. G.I. Jane (1997) was anchored by superb performances from Demi Moore and Viggo Mortensen but was heavily criticized for the violence done to Moore on her way to becoming a Navy Seal. The huge, sprawling epic Kingdom of Heaven (2004) suffered from weak writing and even the stunning visuals and beautiful direction couldn’t save it. More than anything, it proved that Orlando Bloom could not carry a major film. Robin Hood (2010), despite a fine cast including Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, was a dismal failure. As for The Counselor(2013), the less said the better, again despite a great cast.
When he is in the zone and on his game, his films have been among the finest since 1979. Alien, a creepy haunted house movie in space was brilliant and launched a franchise, while Blade Runner remains a masterpiece of science fiction. Thelma and Louise was a brilliant film about two women on the run, with two memorable performances from Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. A modern-day western, shot in and around Death Valley and Monument Valley, it looked like a John Ford western and ended with one of the most iconic shots in film history. Gladiator was a big, brash sword and sand epic, a throwback to this genre popular in the 60s. Russell Crowe, Oliver Reed, Djimon Honsou and Joaquin Phoenix were superb in the film and audiences loved it. Suddenly, ancient Rome was box office gold! Matchstick Men might be his most underappreciated film, with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell as partners in crime. Cage is a knockout as a man afflicted with OCD who is overjoyed by a visit from his past. The twist is shocking and devastating, and perfectly directed. American Gangster is a brilliant true story about mobster Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who was the cocaine kingpin in New York for many years.
His last great film, The Martian, is also among his finest. Matt Damon delivers a perfect performance as a botanist left behind by accident on a mission to Mars. We witness his brilliant techniques to stay alive in this inhospitable environment while waiting for his crew to return. Damon is superb in a visual-effects dominated film.
And now he and Scott are together again in a film set in France in the 1300’s. Quite simply, The Last Duel is a powerful film, among the year’s very best with powerhouse performances from Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Ben Affleck and, best of all, Killing Eve’s Emmy-Award winner Jodie Comer, who is absolutely astonishing. In an interesting narrative, the sordid tale is told from three different points of view, the final one the accurate version.
Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) has been away fighting the One Hundred Years War, heroically doing what he believes is his duty. When he returns, he learns his best friend and squire Jacques Le Gris has raped his wife. Using the Rashomon effect, the film unfolds in a unique manner.
In the 1300’s, rape was not a crime against women. “It is a property matter” is just one of the shocking lines uttered in the film, illustrating women’s place in society at that time. De Carrouges chooses to believe his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and chooses to defend her honour with a fight to the death as ordered by the King.
As the narrative unfolds, we see three versions of the events. The first is that of de Carrouges, who sees himself as a hero, a good man, a warrior for his country. He loves his wife and chooses to believe her even when the rapist is his best friend. I asked myself if my wife came to me and told me she was raped, there would be no doubt in my mind, but women are clearly more suspect in these times: when you watch Damon’s careful choices in the film, you see doubt.
We see that even more clearly in the middle narrative, as Le Gris shows us the story from his point of view. He feels entitled to have his way with this woman, simply because she is a woman. Le Gris is a brutal, cruel man. He sees himself as a rising star in France, given property and wealth for deeds he did not do. This only builds the hatred between him and de Carrouges.
(SPOILER ALERT…DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM!)
The third narrative, the accurate one, convinces us that Le Gris is indeed the vilest of men, a horrible human being who feels no shame for his deeds. We may have some suspicions based on some of his actions up to this point, but here it all comes out. Jodie Comer is superb as Marguerite in all three sections but especially shines in the third. She refuses to be an object owned by a man and lashes back. Her husband, a decent man but also driven by pride, becomes her champion and will risk his life for her in this duel.
Though it is jarring to see both Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in a period piece, after a few scenes we settle in and accept their fine performances. Driver seems to fit into any era, as does Comer. Damon and Affleck suffer from being such ubiquitous modern actors, so it takes a bit to get used to them, especially Affleck in his blonde locks and snotty manner. Used more for comic relief than anything else, Affleck does fine work in the film, growing evermore as an actor. I should mention this is the first time since 1997’s Good Will Hunting that Affleck and Damon wrote together. I am among those who don’t believe they wrote that screenplay but regardless, this time around they are assisted by Nicole Holofcener who added the women’s point of view. Without her, I suspect, it would have been another testosterone-heavy epic about men at war.
Scott creates the appropriate production design for the actors, including cold, damp castles, dirty fields where they wage their battles with heavy armour on horseback. Bodies are hacked, stabbed, beaten, and torn to pieces by whatever weapons they are using. There is nothing clean or tidy about dying in this film. It wasn’t a picnic for women either. Consider this: if Damon’s character loses the duel, his wife will also be executed for lying about being raped.
Of particular interest to me was the sound design, creating a world where silence was often shattered by the clashing of heavy metals being used as weapons. I found it fascinating.
Damon is exceptional as de Carrouges. A preening, pompous knight, he likes himself and values his reputation. When his best friend is accused of a horrible crime, he is conflicted but sides with his wife. It is a strong performance from the actor, who also shone this year in Stillwater (2021). Adam Driver is magnificent as the evil rapist Le Gris. Towering over everyone else in the cast except Affleck, Driver is a perfect villain. Believing it his right to take Marguerite as he wishes, he is violent and cruel, taking pleasure in other people’s suffering. With his dark good looks, piercing eyes and sneer, Driver delivers a superb supporting performance that could be a Supporting Actor nominee.
Affleck has fun in his small part, popping in and out of the film with acerbic and sarcastic comments, leaving few unscathed. He continues to grow as an actor and could be in the Oscar mix for George Clooney’s film The Tender Bar.
Jodie Comer: remember the name because you will hear if a lot in the next 40 years. What a talent. As in, Meryl Streep great. It can hardly be a surprise that the hit woman from Killing Eve, so brilliant and blackly funny, would be a solid film actress. She easily outshines the men in this film with a blazing, angry performance as the injured woman in a man’s world. She is aware of what will happen if her husband loses the duel, but she forges ahead anyway. She was violated and wants whatever revenge she can get. It is a wonderful simmering performance that seethes with hatred for Le Gris and challenges the rules of this society.
As the weak King Charles VI, Alex Lawther looks exactly as he should for this silly character. He is a weak little man who is also slightly mad. Lawther plays him as such and is quite wonderful.
In the end, Scott has made a fine film about courage and honour, but ironically, in a society ruled by men, it is a woman who displays the most honour and dignity. One of the year’s best films.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.