The big news about “The Last Duel,” at least around these parts, is that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote the script, along with Nicole Holofcener. It’s their first collaboration since “Good Will Hunting (1997), that much loved and far-too-sentimental movie.
There is nothing sentimental about “The Last Duel.” It includes a rape, shown twice (from the perspective of each participant); a stag hunt; several set-piece battles; and the joust that gives the film its title. A little sentiment might be welcome in a movie that’s solemn to the point of ponderousness.
Damon stars, along with Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. Affleck plays a smaller, if very showy, role. It’s hard for a role not to be showy when it’s a nobleman in 14th-century France with bleached-blond hair and chin patch to match. Nothing solemn about that.
“The Last Duel” centers on an actual event, the final legally sanctioned trial by combat fought in France. The year is 1386. A nobleman, Jacques Le Gris (Driver), has been accused of raping Lady Marguerite de Carrouges (Comer), the wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon). If Carrouges defeats Le Gris, then Marguerite’s accusation must be true and Le Gris’s denial false. If Le Gris wins, it’s the reverse. “One of us has lied,” Carrouges declares. “Let God decide.”
The story is told in three chapters: one each from the perspective of Carrouges, Le Gris, and Marguerite. It’s a narrative device as old as “Rashomon” (1950). Seeing becomes believing — until, of course, the same thing is shown differently.
“The Last Duel” is set in a society obsessed with honor even as it wallows in brutality. (The rape, it should be noted, is not graphic in presentation, but it’s definitely brutal.) That societal contradiction is fascinating and part of what drew Damon and Affleck to the story. It’s also better suited to page than screen, unless the director is Akira Kurosawa (speaking of “Rashomon”). The director here is Ridley Scott. He worked with Damon on “The Martian” (2015) and with Driver on “House of Gucci,” which comes out next month.
Scott’s first feature was “The Duellists” (1977), a fine film that’s little remembered because Scott’s next feature was something called “Alien” (1979). The dueling in that first film also takes place in France, albeit more than four centuries later, so there’s a nice sense of continuity here. Auteurists will also take note that the duel recalls the very different sort of trials by combat found in Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000). Come to think of it, Affleck’s over-the-top fop, Count Pierre, is like a beach-boy version of Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus.
The best thing about “The Last Duel” is its very handsome look, courtesy of Scott’s go-to cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. The film has a wintry, gunmetal palette, with mist and falling snow as frequent visual grace notes. As against that presiding blue-gray, there’s a no less frequent recourse to the honeyed yet dangerous light of flames: torches, candles, bonfires, campfires, flaming arrows. All that burning will eventually burst into passion.
“The Last Duel” might work better as a silent film. Period language is a lot trickier than a period look. The characters’ diction is mostly simple and unadorned, if also slightly stilted. “It is good to see you, my friend,” sentences like that. Contractions are avoided. So are old-timey flourishes like “prithee” and “methinks.” That’s good. What’s not good are stumbles like Carrouges announcing “I am broke” and using “workforce” and “cost of labor” (has he been reading Le Economist?). Count Pierre, in his bad-boy way, is fond of dropping F-bombs and tells a roomful of vassals and lieges “I can drink you all under the table.” Mais oui, m’lord.
Driver’s having a big year, with “Last Duel” opening, “House of Gucci” coming, and last summer he got to sing, in “Annette.” That’s another movie where he plays a character who behaves very badly toward a woman. A big year is not necessarily the same as a good year. When Le Gris swirls his cloak and robes, it’s like Driver’s back to playing Kylo Ren, in the “Star Wars” movies.
Damon had a movie out this summer, too, “Stillwater.” Carrouges is a bit like his character in that film: a man more muscular than verbal and who finds himself adjacent to a terrible crime involving a loved one. Carrouges has a warrior’s flaws as well as virtues. There’s a tension between Damon’s innate likability onscreen and how off-putting Sir Jean can be. Damon’s taking on so mixed a character speaks to the artistic ambition that’s been a constant throughout his career. What isn’t mixed about Carrouges is his grooming. An extremely bad haircut can best be described as a medieval mullet, and his beard is even worse than the count’s.
Comer, who’s best known for her virtuoso assassin on the BBC series “Killing Eve,” had her own movie earlier this summer, “Free Guy.” It’s a tribute to her range that Lady Marguerite is so different from those three characters (three since in “Free Guy” she plays two). Comer doesn’t really look like anyone else in movies right now: the deep-set eyes and big cheeks, that oval face and milky complexion. Certainly, no one can match her stare.
By necessity, the third chapter, Lady Marguerite’s story, gets even more talky and expository than the first two, and that’s saying a lot. But at its heart is that stare, and that counts for a great deal. The concluding duel goes on — and on — and on. It’s also extremely violent. Yet all the sword thrusting and ax swinging and horse galloping put together are less forceful than Comer’s stare.
THE LAST DUEL
Directed by Ridley Scott; Written by Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck; based on the book by Eric Jager. Starring Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Affleck. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 153 minutes. R (sexual assault, violence, language, nudity).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.