The Last Duel introduces Jean de Carrouges (played by Matt Damon), its ostensible hero, with the gritty fanfare expected from a Ridley Scott epic. Much like the valiant former Roman general Maximus of Gladiator or the stouthearted Crusader Balian of Kingdom of Heaven, Jean proudly charges into battle, sword in hand, hacking at the enemy with no regard for his own life. The film follows Jean in 14th-century France, portraying him as a successful warrior, an outspoken nobleman, and a loving partner to his wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Then the perspective switches.
This is the skillful trick of Scott’s masterly new film, scripted by Damon, Ben Affleck, and the celebrated filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and based on Eric Jager’s account of the last trial by combat in France. It tells its tale according to three characters: first Jean; then his friend turned rival Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), a beloved companion of the region’s count (Ben Affleck); then Marguerite, who accuses Jacques of rape and prompts Jean and Jacques’ duel to the death. The story is told in the style of Rashomon, the 1950 film in which the same murder is recounted by several different characters. But Rashomon underscored the subjective nature of truth; in The Last Duel, each new storyteller works to peel back the self-aggrandizement of the last. Ultimately, Marguerite’s sad but definitive account deftly lays bare the shortcomings of both men’s viewpoints.
While Jean sees himself as a courageous soldier who dares to criticize powerful lords, Jacques sees him as an imprudent blowhard who barges into action without thinking. And while both men see themselves as paragons of masculinity—Jean imagining himself as the perfect gallant husband, Jacques imagining himself as the dashing dark-haired seducer whom Marguerite cannot resist—she sees their hypocritical buffoonery. A devastating final act mercilessly skewers whatever remains of the viewer’s sympathies for the two men.
The steady unraveling of first impressions requires an unchivalrous running time of 152 minutes. After all, the film has to tell its tale three times; the viewer often sees the same event repeated in an entirely different light, so that Jean’s acts of heroism seem more ridiculous than courageous, and Jacques’ aloofness from afar transforms into something more cunning up close. But each act feels surprisingly brisk. Affleck and Damon have not collaborated as screenwriters since Good Will Hunting—another movie that mixed goofy ball-busting with darker emotional reckoning—and their creative partnership yields a similarly invigorating mix of tones here. (Holofcener apparently joined after they started writing; they wanted a woman’s perspective in the mix, particularly for Marguerite’s act.)
Damon has long excelled at playing men who think highly of themselves but are a little overmatched in reality—think of his fantastic supporting turns in Interstellar and True Grit, or his raging, try-hard villainy in The Departed. He’s perfect, then, as a pious but grandstanding French knight. (The film happily dispenses with regionally accurate accents.) Driver is darkly magnetic as Jacques, a man whose heroic appeal was supposedly mesmerizing in real life (and helped throw the real Marguerite’s accusation into serious doubt). And Affleck, who was once intended for the role of Jacques, instead plays the foppish Count Pierre d’Alençon, a partying lord looking mostly to protect his favorites and punish his enemies in a society where justice is loosely defined.
Offsetting the egotistical jousting between Jacques and Jean is Marguerite, the bookish and beautiful daughter of a disgraced lord. She commits the film’s one pure act of heroism: reporting Jacques’ assault and firmly demanding punishment. That is what pushes Jean and Jacques to fight to the death, each assuming that God will intervene in his favor and prove the other unjust. Just as the film’s trifurcated narrative structure reveals both men’s shortcomings, it also reveals their steadfast sense of self-worth—Jean practically thinks of himself as a martyr, and Jacques genuinely doesn’t think that any woman would be able to resist him, thus judging himself innocent.
Comer’s performance is piercing and selfless, a crucial counterpoint to the gross self-importance of the male ensemble. Her motivation in the brutal feudal society that Scott depicts is little more than survival; even in her landed position, her freedom is limited and Jacques’ rape is viewed as a crime only because it’s considered an assault on Jean’s property. But Comer still manages to imbue Marguerite with wit and a little sauciness, making her much more than a mute victim; only when the events in question are seen through her eyes does the full weight of the story become clear. Scott has long made movies about how systems of power exist to serve only the powerful, from the faceless corporations of Alien to the indifferent cops of Thelma and Louise. As The Last Duel rumbles to its bloody conclusion and its two leading men clash, it’s clear that the filmmaker’s allegiance lies elsewhere.