On its mud-and-blood surface, “The Last Duel” seems like a familiar slog.
The film, directed by Ridley Scott, begins with all the expected medieval trappings: gory battlefields, imposing stone castles, the clop of horses. The skies are gray, the terrain muddy and, considering this film is by the director of “Robin Hood,” “Gladiator” and other brawny. masculine historical epics, you think you know exactly what’s in store.
But “The Last Duel” may be one of the only films where the director, himself, is kind of a MacGuffin. The movie, written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Nicole Holofcener, is not the tale of manly valor that it first appears. “The Last Duel” is more like a medieval tale deconstructed, piece by piece, until its heavily armored male characters and the genre’s mythologized nobility are unmasked.
The film, framed like “Rashomon,” is told in three chapters repeated from different perspectives. The first, which belongs to Jean de Carrouges (Damon), might have once been the sole version of “The Last Duel.” In 14th century France, de Carrouges is a loyal and valiant soldier for King Charles VI (a childish ruler played by Alex Lawther) who weds a nobleman’s daughter, Marguerite (Jodie Comer). He finds his agreed upon dowry, including a handsome parcel of Normandy, has been taken instead as a debt collection by the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck). He in turn awards the land to de Carrouges’ friend and fellow warrior Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), infuriating de Carrouges. This starts a rift between de Carrouges and Le Gris, as well as with the count, who strongly favors Le Gris. De Carrouges sees himself as a good and brave man, unfairly treated by his superiors. When he returns from a trip, his wife informs him that she was raped by Le Gris while he was away. De Carrouges vows to bring him to justice.