In 1998, two twenty-something actors took the Oscar stage to accept the Best Original Screenplay award for Good Will Hunting. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon giddily embraced their gold trophies after growing up two blocks away from each other in Cambridge, Massachusetts. You know the rest. The writers and stars of the drama have since gone on to become two of the most famous names working today. Nearly 25 years later, the pair have reunited on their second script together, The Last Duel. One may expect it all to come full-circle here, but this is no hometown coming-of-age story. It’s a Ridley Scott medieval epic deeply exploring the harsh and age-old truths of a woman caught in the middle of a man’s world.
The third crucial piece of the puzzle here is that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon have written The Last Duel alongside Nicole Holofcener, who has previously written critical darlings Enough Said and Can You Ever Forgive Me? The title refers to the story based on historical events, recounting what was the final officially recognized judicial duel in France, fought between the brute knight Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and the devilishly charming Sir Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver). As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that The Last Duel’s greatest weapon is not in Damon and Driver’s clinking of cold metal, however, but the subject of the duel, Jodie Comer’s Marguerite de Carrouges, who easily steals the sword with the emotional jabs of her performance.
Ridley Scott delivers a nail-biting medieval epic with his frigid, yet haunting direction.
The Last Duel imagines the time period as muted and rugged, with director Ridley Scott returning to period drama for the first time in over a decade. Scott demonstrates an impressive hold on constructing the story of The Last Duel, featuring dynamic, bloody sword fights and making each set feel palpable and each costume intentional. Sure, Ben Affleck has funny blonde hair with a goatee and Matt Damon is basically sporting a mullet, but in the context of the film itself, Scott accomplishes the kind of immersion audiences want to see in a movie such as this.
That being said, The Last Duel is at its core the story of a medieval court case, and it can very much drag like one in many instances. The movie best sings when the director gets to its gutting third act and Matt Damon and Adam Driver’s friends-turned-rivals duke it out in the historical duel. There’s an otherwise iciness to the film (surely matched with the subject matter) that must be braved, and it doesn’t swing as confidently as Scott’s Best Picture winner, Gladiator.
The unique three-act structure of The Last Duel is mostly effective, but not without pitfalls.
The historical drama is told in three acts, each respectively told from the perspectives of Matt Damon’s Jean de Carrouges, Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, and Jodie Comer’s Marguerite de Carrouges. It’s an inspired structure that helps spark intrigue through some of the film’s drudgery. Each section isn’t necessarily distinct enough for it to completely stick the landing, but it allows the story to unfold in an interesting way. To see some of the same scenes play out from the male gaze to the female gaze is particularly worthwhile, especially when it comes to the rape plot line that is central to The Last Duel.
The three-act structure, which was also split between Damon, Affleck and Holofcener when constructing the script, allows audiences to see how important perspective and bias is in storytelling. By the end of the film, there’s a combined empathy and complexity for each of the three characters, even to some degree in Adam Driver’s antagonist.
Another rich result of this choice is how nuanced a single act of lust becomes for a community (in this case, kingdom) to wrestle with. It’d be easy to make The Last Duel into a rape revenge story, but that’s not what this is. Hidden between the sword fights and rigid drama, it’s a deep and somber discussion about the lasting impact rape can not only have on its victim/survivor, but the entangled reasons as to why it was and sadly continues to often remain a secret when it comes to speaking out and seeking justice for it.
The Last Duel illustrates that even when it is challenged and tried in court, there is little victory or gratification that comes as a result of rape no matter what kind of justice is served, and, on an eerie and exhaustive note, how much a rape case set in the 14th century holds relevance in our world today.
Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s reunion may get the buzz, but Jodie Comer is the one who carries the film to glory.
The Last Duel is overflowing with talent. Matt Damon brings a fresh performance to the table as Marguerite’s husband and hot-headed knight. Ben Affleck steals many of his scenes as the powerful, jovial, and carefree Count Pierre d’Alençon, who keeps Adam Driver’s Sir Jacques Le Gris as his closest confidant. Driver is working in familiar territory here, coming off of the intimidating presence of Star Wars’ Kylo Ren, but nonetheless is a standout, becoming once again a true ‘bad guy’ you can’t necessarily bring yourself to completely despise.
Walking out of this star-studded film, however, it’s Jodie Comer who absolutely turns The Last Duel around from an otherwise often creaky medieval drama to an engaging film that may endure for some time. Every character in The Last Duel conjures up feelings of being simultaneously on their side and weary of their bias; Comer walks that line with the most absolute grace. The actor carries a weight of hundreds and hundreds of years of collective dread in a concise and haunting way. She’s a character of few words, but depth of expression and emotion.
The only nitpick with Comer’s Marguerite de Carrouges is that we have to wait until the film is nearly over to truly get the scope of her performance. The Affleck/Damon reunion of it all feels trivial in the shadow of Nicole Holofcener’s voice coming through Comer’s turn, and it’s the essential element that makes The Last Duel the most worthwhile.