As our screening room filled up to see The Last Duel yesterday, the attendees were talking about how long it was going to be. For some reason, this is always a big issue for people coming to screenings. They always ask how long it is, and if it’s short, there is relief. If it’s long, there is dread. It’s kind of the California film writer’s version of the weather.
At almost two and half hours, The Last Duel seemed like it would be a slog, particularly given the mild reviews out of Venice. What I didn’t expect was to be riveted for every minute, captivated by the performances and the story until the very last frame. Much of this is due to the singular brilliance of Jodie Comer in the leading role. She has a face the camera loves but as an actress she is adept at keeping her emotions just hidden from view. There is an unpredictability about her expressions. That makes anything she’s in a fascinating watch, from Doctor Foster to Killing Eve and now, the Last Duel.
The Last Duel is a three-part take on a many centuries-old rape accusation that rocked the French countryside way back in the 1300s. It is about a time when women could not speak of rape, of course, or they’d be killed at best. It was just easier not to say anything. It was also a time of brutish men who treated women like livestock — and they treat their livestock bad enough. No living thing should endure such punishment at the hands of men (or women), but they have through the millennia. Such is the curse of humanity as the world’s most dominant invasive species.
While it’s true that Ben Affleck, Adam Driver, and Matt Damon walk around in odd outfits with even odder hairstyles, all three sink into their roles with relish, as they must depict their characters, as Comer does, through various versions of the rape story. The movie does not equivocate, of course — no one could in 2021. It has to be definitive in its message about rape, of course, as you’d imagine. So in a sense, you know from Frame One where this, and any movie like it, is going to end up. The last thing anyone needs is a massive boycott and waves of angry think pieces about Hollywood getting it wrong.
But thankfully, the movie is very good at revealing its politics through well-written dialogue and near-satire. It’s better to simply show things as they were rather than have various characters deliver out-of-place lectures. It sort of reminds me a little of how people today talk about fascism without realizing that if we were living through actual fascism, people protesting for any reason (whether online or on the streets) would simply be shot on the spot or put in prison. Similarly, for most of their existence women were constantly used to satisfy men whenever and wherever they saw fit. In fact, a woman’s only protection would have been another man protecting her. The Last Duel doesn’t flinch in its depiction of this brutality, nor does it confine the torment to the one high status female. They make sure to nod to the “peasant women” who are routinely raped by soldiers but never have a voice or any sort of justice rendered.
The Last Duel, like No Time to Die and like Dune, is a reminder of what Big Hollywood can do when it isn’t making superhero movies. Big set pieces, long action sequences, with adventure and high drama. It was such a treat to watch that the length of it never occurred to me.
The Last Duel shows Sir Ridley’s engine still roars hot. It’s hard to believe he can still be this good of a director in this, his fifth decade of movie-making. His taste for onscreen blood and violence is at the same level as his Best Picture winner, Gladiator. He is such a grandmaster when it comes to directing that he just knows, instinctively, how to present a MOVIE movie. And this is one of those. This is a movie you can safely pay to see and feel as though you are getting more than your money’s worth. Just when he should be slowing down, with House of Gucci coming up soon, he’s doing anything but.
But the film belongs to its star, Jodie Comer, who gives one of the best performances of the year, and one that should be remembered come Oscar time, along with the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck. While it didn’t really light the fire of the critics in Venice, it is exactly the kind of movie that can bring back the Big Oscar Movie — the universal, crowd-pleasing epic.
It’s too soon to know whether The Last Duel will land or not. We still have to see House of Gucci, and it’s hard to know which of these will eclipse the other. It will be billed as a “Me Too” movie and it’s definitely not for kids. But it gives me hope that the Hollywood I grew up with, the one that made movies this grand, is still alive.