The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

Stillwater (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

A towering central performance from Matt Damon as a redneck American adrift in Marseilles just about saves this from being a total train wreck. Oscar-nominated director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, 2015) doesn’t just go off-kilter but dangerously off-piste in a truly bizarre third act that sabotages the entire picture, which already is within touching distance of the jump-the-shark record.

But let’s concentrate on the good stuff. Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil rig worker in Marseilles trying to clear gay daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) from a murder charge – she has served four years of a ten-year sentence. Normally, he only remains in France for two weeks but this time, frustrated by the French judicial system, attempts his own investigation. He strikes up a relationship with single mother Virginie (Camille Cottin), becoming very attached to her daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).

He becomes a surrogate father to Maya, collecting her after school, taking on babysitting duties to allow Virginie to continue her acting career. He moves in, initially in platonic fashion, but soon they become lovers. Considering he has been a lousy dad to Allison, who still, for good reason, distrusts him, he makes up for it with Maya and soon Virginie, sensing the decent qualities beneath the typical angry American, takes him into her bed.

These relationships are all terrifically well done and it’s almost Bill’s first stab at parenthood since he was absent for most of Allison’s childhood, either away working on oil rigs or out of his skull on drink or drugs. The character exhibits considerable self-awareness and the gradual transformation from bull in a china shop (not exactly how you would describe tough Marseilles, but still) to father and lover is incredibly well done.  

So the film could have gone one of two ways. He could have remained in France, working as a general laborer, contributing to the household, watching Maya grow up, perhaps (God forbid!) actually learning some French, and waiting to be reunited with his daughter once freed – she is allowed one day a month out of prison so their relationship is being strengthened in incremental stages.

***SPOILER ALERT***

Or, the director having succumbed to brain fever, Bill could decide to throw all that away by capturing the suspect he has been hunting, slicing off a hunk of hair for DNA purposes, and keeping the prisoner in his basement until the results of such testing comes through. And in the process discovering that his daughter is in fact guilty. It’s as if Damon had realized he was in the wrong picture and slipped into his Jason Bourne alter ego or had been watching too many Taken films.

It would be entirely in character that he hides this unsavory fact from the French police, only confronting his daughter with it once she is safely back home, but it might have been a different, and more satisfying, picture altogether if he had uncovered this evidence in another, simpler, manner and then had to deal with the consequences.

I am making it sound as if the whole picture comes apart in the final section but in truth it is perilously off the rails from the get-go. McCarthy’s contribution to an outdated sub-genre that includes Missing (1982) and Not Without My Daughter (1991) falls into the unacceptable trap of tapping foreign judicial systems as incompetent at best and corrupt at worst. Bill Baker exhibits the worst characteristics of dumb American colonialism as he charges around Marseilles baffled that none of the inhabitants can speak English. It is a truly awful directorial conceit where the eight-year-old Maya is expected to have a better grasp of English than Bill of French. He surely cannot be so dumb that he can’t say “Je t’aime” instead of letting loose an emotional barrage in English to the poor child.

Then there is the very uncomfortable treatment of the locals. Sure, parts of France are certainly racist, and although Bill Baker is comfortable with racists, since he has worked alongside them and he might well have been a Trump supporter had he been allowed to vote instead of being barred due to his criminal record, director McCarthy feels it is his duty as a brave American director shining a spotlight on the country’s nether regions to highlight this aspect of French culture.

Shooting yourself in the foot was never easier than here. The movie bears strong and quite unnecessary similarities to the Amanda Knox case, especially since Allison’s experience with her gay lover comes so close to the facts of the Knox situation.

And that’s not counting the improbabilities. Guess where Bill spots the suspect Akim (Idir Azougli) he has been chasing all his time? Yep, you’ve guessed it. In a crowd of 60,000 people. At a football match. It could only happen in Hollywood. He only needs a sample of the guy’s DNA, a snippet of hair would do, to prove he was present at the scene of the crime and cast sufficient reasonable doubt on his daughter’s conviction. Instead, having floored the guy in the street to get the few strands of hair required, he then locks him up in his cellar – for a week! – until the results of the DNA test comes through.

But someone tips off the cops. But lo and behold when they arrive there is not only no body in the cellar but no evidence that anyone has ever been there because the quick-thinking but very skinny Virginie has improbably managed to untie him and move him to some other unspecified hidden location.

And so we come to the mysterious title. Stillwater is a nondescript backwater in Oklahoma where Allison lived. But for some reason it’s the type of place where not even with a touch of irony canny manufacturers believe its name attached to a necklace would be an unbelievably attractive purchase in a retail outlet at an airport. And that it was worthy not just of being a mere bauble but of being made of gold, and sufficiently valuable that it would be acceptable as part payment to Akim for carrying out a bad deed.

Tom McCarthy has been incredibly lucky to receive a performance of a lifetime by Matt Damon, so sure-footed that there is not even an inkling of his trademark shy smile. Camille Cottin is also excellent. I’m not sure whether Abigail Breslin is meant to be this unlikeable, in which case blame the director, or whether her whiny behavior is a pointer to her guilt. Either way, she is over the top.

However, this is one of those rare instances where if you swallow your disbelief at the plotting, you will uncover a pure gem of a performance.

I saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday night outing. It’s available on Amazon Prime and not the type of picture where the visuals are so outstanding that I would urge you only to watch it on the big screen.

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