The Last Duel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Nathaniel Parker, Sam Hazeldine, Željko Ivanek, Marton Csokas
Genre: Historical/Drama
Run Time : 153 min
Opens : 14 October
Rating : R21

Content warning: sexual assault

In 1977, Ridley Scott made his feature film debut with The Duellists, set during the Napoleonic Wars. 44 years and 24 films later, Scott visits another era of French history with The Last Duel, set during the Hundred Years War and telling the story of the last trial by combat permitted by the Parliament of Paris.

It is 1386. Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are former best friends. They have grown apart because Le Gris has earned the favour of the wealthy and powerful Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who has a personal distaste for Carrouges. Carrouges, whose wife and son died in a plague, marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the daughter of disgraced Lord Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). Marguerite claims that while Carrouges was away in battle, Le Gris raped her. Sanctioned by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and the Parliament of Paris, Carrouges challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death. If he wins, Carrouges’ name and honour – and that of his wife – remain intact. If he loses, then Le Gris will be proven innocent in the eyes of God, and Marguerite will be burned at the stake.

Scott is a seasoned veteran behind the camera. Not all his films wind up being great, but almost all of them are technically competent, and The Last Duel is no exception. At once grand and grimy, The Last Duel sees Scott in historical epic mode, bringing the likes of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to mind. Alongside frequent collaborators like cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates, Scott assembles a serious, big-budget movie aimed squarely at grown-ups. Various historical locations in Ireland and France lend the movie its scale, even if experts are bound to find myriad inaccuracies in the costuming and other details.

The story is a fascinating and important one, and even if the movie falls short in certain areas, there is a serious attempt to do the historical subject matter justice. The movie takes its time and is divided into three chapters before getting to the duel, telling the story from Carrouges’, Le Gris’ and Marguerite’s points of view, ensuring that we get to know each of the players well before the climactic, grisly and intense titular sequence. Adapted from The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by medieval literature expert Eric Jager, the script is credited to Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck wrote the perspectives of the men, while Holofcener wrote the perspective of the woman.

This is a movie about the repercussions in the wake of a woman’s sexual assault – more specifically, a woman who decides that in the wake of her sexual assault, she cannot stay silent. It must be noted that the film contains graphic depictions of sexual assault, and how necessary such depictions are in films specifically about the topic is something that’s often debated. The tagline declares this is “the true story of the woman who defied a nation and made history”. However, the actress playing said woman is third-billed. While the movie certainly devotes time and attention to Marguerite and to her interiority, she mostly takes a backseat to Carrouges and Le Gris, and by the time we get to the section of the movie telling her side of the story, it is more than halfway into the 153-minute runtime. There is also a perhaps unavoidable silliness in a movie of this nature, in which haircuts and accents are inevitably distracting. Scott prevents the proceedings from ever getting too jarring, but there are moments that come off as stilted and unnatural. The downside of Scott’s professionalism is his movies sometimes feel dispassionate, and while there is an intensity to The Last Duel that draws viewers in, it also feels like he isn’t as personally invested in the material as he could be.

Damon and Affleck are oft-collaborators and long-time friends. The last time they co-wrote a screenplay, it was for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. As such, there was some anticipation over their first collaboration as writers in 24 years. Unfortunately, Damon comes off as miscast, often feeling like he doesn’t fit the period – especially in comparison to Adam Driver, who carries himself much better in the costumes and surroundings. Affleck’s character, essentially a rich, hard-partying frat boy, seems deliberately anachronistic and he is having fun with it. Their involvement in this film is simultaneously distracting and somewhat novel. While they cannot be directly blamed for it, it is worth remembering that Affleck and Damon owe much of Good Will Hunting’s success to producer Harvey Weinstein, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that they are making a film about a survivor of sexual assault, even if theirs are far from the most pertinent voices on the matter.

Jodie Comer is far and away the best part of the movie. With Free Guy and The Last Duel in the same year, Comer is poised for big screen superstardom. In the section scripted by Holofcener, Comer shines. Her Marguerite is an intelligent, hardworking person who challenges the conventions of the time. She deals with not just being raped, but also with the constant pressure of needing to bear her husband a son. In one particularly wrenching scene, Marguerite’s mother-in-law chastises her for speaking out about the rape, saying she herself was raped but stayed silent so as not to cause trouble. The Last Duel is the most effective when it highlights how much has changed, but depressingly, much has not.

Summary: While there probably are better candidates than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to tell this historical story, The Last Duel benefits from Ridley Scott’s assured direction and a transcendent turn from Jodie Comer. It’s far from the best statement movie made about sexual assault and the challenges that women face in speaking out about their experiences, but it proves an engrossing epic all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

For inSing

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Director : Martin McDonagh
Cast : Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 57 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh traverses from In Bruges to Outside Ebbing, after a detour caused by Seven Psychopaths, with his third feature film.

The film revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother grieving the death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). A year after Angela’s rape and murder, no arrests have been made. Mildred rents out three disused billboards (three guesses as to where they’re located), calling out Ebbing Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards draw a strong reaction from the Ebbing populace, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – not least because Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer. Both Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) take issue with the billboards, blaming Mildred for reopening that wound. Mildred still has a few people in her corner, including her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren), and James (Peter Dinklage), who harbours feelings for Mildred. Mildred hopes the billboards will put pressure on the police to solve the case, but unexpected, violent consequences ensue.

If Seven Psychopaths was McDonagh channelling Quentin Tarantino, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh channelling the Coen Brothers. It’s a happy coincidence that Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coens’ movies, has also scored McDonagh’s previous two films. It seems less coincidental that McDormand, oft-collaborator of the Coens and the wife of Joel Coen, plays the starring role.

However, this is no mere act of mimicry. McDonagh, who is also an accomplished playwright, has brought his own lyricism to each of his films. Three Billboards is the most serious film McDonagh has made, but it isn’t without its outstanding moments of pitch-black humour.

In part because of the pulpier elements of McDonagh’s two earlier films, one might go into Three Billboards expecting all the characters to be broadly-drawn archetypes. It seems almost by design that the audience thinks they have each player in this story figured out the moment we see them. “There’s the righteous mother,” “there’s the lazy cop”, “there’s the scumbag ex-husband”, that sort of thing. The surprises along the way are organic and well thought-out.

While Three Billboards wears its references on its sleeve, it subverts expectations with masterful subtlety. The dialogue, stuffed with words we can’t print, sounds authentic as spoken by these characters – especially impressive considering the writer-director isn’t American. The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri has a realistic bleakness to it, and does seem like the place where something awful might happen and the world at large just wouldn’t notice it.

McDormand leads an ensemble of talented actors who do the material justice and then some. When it comes to strong performances per capita, Three Billboards is at the top of the heap this awards season. All the performances are the right degree of over-the-top – colourful and exaggerated enough to grab the viewer’s attention, but not to the point of being cartoony.

McDonagh wrote the Mildred role with McDormand in mind, and the character plays to all McDormand’s strengths as an actress. Mildred is tough-as-nails, bitter and takes no guff from anyone. Beneath the unyielding exterior, she is grappling with unspeakable grief and frustration and is a deeply flawed, conflicted person. The dramatic move she makes in renting out the billboards stirs up trouble, just as she planned, but she ultimately gets more than she bargained for.

We’re conditioned to root for Mildred and against Chief Willoughby, so we’re naturally surprised when the Chief ends up being not an awful person. We won’t give away too much, but Harrelson is able to shade the character while making him a little larger than life, and the interplay between Willoughby and Mildred is intense but restrained.

Rockwell’s character goes through the most dramatic arc. Dixon is racist, lazy, belligerent and often abuses his authority – but that’s just how the character begins. Rockwell has often portrayed characters who are slimy charmers, but he digs deep here, delivering a layered, fascinating performance.

The supporting cast members all snap right into place. Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is believably conflicted as Mildred’s son. Hawkes is aggressive but not ludicrously so as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. Samara Weaving steals the show several times as Penelope, Charlie’s dim-witted girlfriend, showcasing delightful comic timing. Dinklage is likeable and just awkward enough as the designated ‘nice guy’ whose affections for Mildred are unlikely to be reciprocated.

Not everything here works: the film’s handling of race is clumsy and inconsistent, and as the film barrels towards its conclusion, a few noticeable plot contrivances start stacking up. As assuredly as McDonagh handles the tone, some viewers might still find it jarring when the film moves from its truly harrowing moments to its lighter-hearted ones.

Three Billboards succeeds as an indie darling-type film that is rough around the edges and is never too precious about itself. The film recently collected four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama and awards for McDormand and Rockwell. The film’s peculiar yet finely tuned mix of grimness and off-kilter humour keeps it interesting, and its performances, especially McDormand’s, are thoroughly riveting.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong