Ridley Scott has a rare talent among auteurs, that when he makes a bad movie, it’s usually so breathtakingly terrible and full of unforced errors that people just sort of end up forgetting that it even existed. I’d have such a hard time convincing the average moviegoer that Robin Hood or Exodus or Kingdom Of Heaven even happened that Ridley Scott essentially gets to endure in the zeitgeist as “the guy who made Alien and Gladiator.”
I once read a description of Teddy Roosevelt that said something like that he was so preoccupied with haranguing his guests over meals that the food he was shoveling into his face might as well have been hay for all he’d notice. I sometimes wonder if the same thing is true for Ridley Scott and scripts. Scott is so hyper-focused on envisioning the perfect storyboard (something he seems to do naturally and brilliantly) that sometimes it seems that he fails to notice the most blindingly obvious script flaws.
The Last Duel, a Nicole Holofcener, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon-scripted adaptation of Eric Jager’s book, about a real-life trial by combat in late 14th century France, isn’t nearly as bad as Exodus or Robin Hood on balance, but arguably it’s more infuriating. This could’ve been so great! And in hindsight its flaws seem so plain. Couldn’t anyone have talked them out of this?
The Last Duel‘s introductory scenes, framed around the title duel between Sir Jean De Carrouges — a mulletlicious knight played by Matt Damon, and the squire who raped his wife, Jacques Le Gris, portrayed by Adam Driver in full Prince Valiant mode — promise perhaps the ultimate in climactic Middle Ages MMA fights. The finale belatedly delivers, in thrilling fashion, complete with mud, blood, and mailed fists bashing filthy faces, but the two hours or so in between are a baffling hatchet job.
The story is a straightforward one. Jean and Jacques are brothers in battle, of sorts, their relationship peaking the time when Jean saved Jacque’s life during a melee over a bridge. Yet circumstances, and their own Shakespearean personality flaws, conspire to tear them apart. Jean, the scion of ancient nobility but now nearly broke, with a wife and son dead of the plague, is sort of impetuous, and critically lacking in guile. He’s always grandstanding and going on about honor, often essentially correct in his arguments but usually such an asshole about it that people roll their eyes. Jacques, meanwhile, is the scrappy self-starter, clawing his way up from obscure origins, thanks to his charm and good schooling (he’s literate, and good with numbers) to become consigliere to the count, played by Ben Affleck in a bleach blonde bowl cut for some reason (the first wave of ska was actually during the 14th century, lotta people forget that). Jacques possesses the human touch Jean seems to lack, despite being sort of a louche fuckboy.
In spite of their friendship, Jean can’t help but be annoyed that while he always seems to be off sacrificing his body for the king’s land, the king’s cousin the count seems to lavish all his good fortune on Jacques (understandably so, as Jacques, as we’ve noted, is much more fun to party with). The final straw comes when Jean’s young wife Marguerite, played by Jodie Comer, accuses Jacques of raping her.
In telling this story, Scott and his screenwriters take the Pulp Fiction approach, retelling the story thrice, from each of the three principals’ perspectives, introduced with their respective title cards. You might expect this method to produce some he said/she said drama, or failing that, to add new and interesting wrinkles to the story when seen from each new angle. Instead, the characters don’t change at all. Scott pretty much shoots the same damn thing three times in a row without a single interesting new complication, such that by the third time I heard the same characters deliver the same lines the same way I wondered if I was hallucinating. Why would you do this? You almost have to respect a director so immune to criticism that he can depict the same medieval events three times.
Scott is so cement-headedly single-minded in his approach to this material that you’d think there wasn’t a single sunny day in France between 1350 and 1400. No, according to The Last Duel, everything was always grey and muted and cold. That must be why they called it “The Dark Ages.” The characters, who were of course French in real life, speak here in a kind of muddled Americanese, overenunciated to indicate old-timeyness. Which isn’t especially distracting, but the fact that Ben Affleck’s character seems to be the only one capable of sarcasm, subtext, or quips sort of is. Was banter not invented until the renaissance? One of the few interesting moments comes when Adam Driver (doing his damnedest here with little to work with) articulates his 14th-century conception of consent, “Well of course she offered the customary protests, she is a lady.”
The movie just sort of slogs its way from one sleeting grey frown fest to the next, not heating up until the trial. The medieval courtroom drama that follows instantly proves itself far more compelling than the three virtually indistinguishable versions of the same story that came before. Making one wonder why it only gets a few minutes of screen time. The bizarro logic of medieval church and state is so interesting, in fact, and Marguerite’s perspective so obviously the most absorbing in this tale, that you barely question why The Last Duel‘s characters act like they’ve just parachuted in from 2021 and are experiencing feudal justice for the first time. Did they think Johnny Cochran was going to argue this case before a jury of their peers? What world had they been living in, prior to this moment? Why couldn’t we get more of Alex Lawther as the wan, bemused king?
Finally, FINALLY the climactic duel happens, and, adding insult to injury, it’s a home run. Ridley Scott even seems to abandon his strange habit of cutting away from the actual sword blows (why does he do this? WHY DOES HE DO THIS??) for long enough to deliver a legitimately rousing finale. Why did we have to suffer hours of affectless perspective shifts to get to this? Couldn’t we have just told Marguerite’s story, delving deeper and with a longer court sequence, and then this finale?
Maybe if we hadn’t been fruitlessly shifting POV, there would’ve been space for a fuller portrait of France in the late 14th century, during the doldrums of the hundred years war and the aftermath of a plague decimating half the population. Those things just seem more interesting to me than trying to create the humorless medieval Pulp Fiction. I don’t pretend to know exactly what went wrong here, but The Last Duel seems to be a persuasive case for creative oversight.