The acclaimed new film from Ridley Scott boasts a terrific cast, a fascinating narrative structure and a lengthy runtime. But the majority of the conversation ought to be surrounding the morals of the film.
To my personal perspective, which admittedly is one that hasn’t focused too much on the career of Ridley Scott (but more on his late brother, Tony, one of my personal favourite directors), The Last Duel seems to have only just been announced before it appeared in cinemas. Surprisingly little fanfare for what seems to be a reasonably high budgeted film, built by a strong cast (rising star Jodie Comer, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Adam Driver are the four primary characters – and all are excellent here) and striking me as the first film made on a studio dime that has been this dedicated to telling a period story since Martin Scorsese’s excellent Silence (2016). I can only hope that this film will receive more acclaim than the former, which remains underrated, but a release date coinciding with the almost guaranteed money makers that are Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Halloween Kills makes this seem pretty unlikely.
To my surprise, this is a thoughtful and challenging film. To such an extent, in fact, that it did almost lose me towards the end. It functions simultaneously as a hyperactively modern film – it is smothered in star power, it leans towards feminism (the trailer leans into this more than the film itself does, but the ideas are still firmly in place) and it adopts the same storytelling technique as Akira Kurosawa’s insanely ahead of its time classic Rashomon (1948), telling its story from three different perspectives to allow the audience to learn the intentions, drives and attitudes of its characters multiple times, learning more about them each time we see their story re-told through the eyes of someone else.
Matt Damon’s character tells his story first. All seems clear, as we are given no opposing viewpoint we are essentially forced to take what we are shown as fact. Adam Driver’s telling of events brings in the much needed contrast, not only making the film more interesting with its narrative structure (we see act one and two three times, then act three only once to conclude) but also fleshing out the dramatics at the centre of the character’s conflicts. It is the third telling of the film’s story that both binds the film together but also almost ruined it to me. A certain terrible event is shown not once but twice – the first time is bad enough, even though the perspective it is told from is the one of the perpetrator and the second time is almost unwatchably grim.
This struck me as problematic, especially considering that this film had used its feminist ideology to advertise itself, and for a moment I considered if maybe Ridley Scott’s age was showing and he had brought his beliefs forward in a really quite ugly way. But thankfully, the third act resolves this as it perfectly concludes this brutal and unforgiving film. Scott does not fetishise violence here – the term violence applying to all types (sexual, physical, mental, etc) but sees it more as a brutal means to potentially brutal ends. No character is unscathed, the villains only ending up slightly worse off than the heroes, if they can be called heroes that is. Comer’s character is the clearest cut morally, as her character’s position doesn’t change over any of the three narratives (it is explored further, but her motivations and good will stay the same) – Affleck is also finally given room to fully get into playing a scumbag character and does so beautifully – but the ‘heroism’ of Damon’s character is so brilliantly questioned. Where does his love for his wife and his quest for justice on her behalf end, and where do his own, much slimier, wants come into play?
We are never told, and that is really what makes this film as good as it is. We are left to question the characters and their morality, left to wander the implications of the film’s ending (I view it as quite bittersweet, personally, but won’t explain why in detail due to spoilers). Scott’s new film is brave and pinpointed, morally fascinating with the filmmaking talent and experimentation to align with that. It’s a great film, on my first impressions – a really great film that far exceeded my middling expectations.