This article contains mild The Last Duel spoilers.
It was one of the nice surprises of the fall moviegoing season. A Ridley Scott epic based on a true story opened in cinemas. And despite early skepticism on social media, it proved the critics wrong with a taut narrative and a whole ensemble of impressive performances—particularly the leading lady who portrayed a woman at the center of a maelstrom.
No, I’m not describing House of Gucci, which continues to rack up awards attention, but rather the far better reviewed (and frankly better) The Last Duel. Both were two and a half hour epics from Scott, and both told tales of treachery and betrayal, marital suspicion and tribal violence. And yet, the much better of the two movies has been entirely forgotten about during the Oscars season campaign by most major awards bodies. Meanwhile House of Gucci just pulled off a stunning coup by picking up multiple nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, including Best Actress for Lady Gaga, Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto, and quite shockingly, Best Ensemble (SAG’s equivalent of “Best Picture”).
By contrast, The Last Duel has entirely dropped away from the awards conversation other than an early recognition from the National Board of Review for being one of the Top Films of 2021.
Of course matters of quality and taste are entirely subjective, which speaks to the ultimately obligatory nature of awards unto themselves. Nevertheless, one cannot entirely discount the credibility and attention award nominations and wins can bring to deserving projects from audiences who might otherwise never discover the film. And at the very least, The Last Duel’s 86 percent positive score on the review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes versus House of Gucci’s more tepid 63 percent speaks to a generally agreed upon difference of quality among critics on which is the better film. One might also note how much better The Last Duel was received than other industry favorites at the SAG Awards like Don’t Look Up, which sits at an even more anemic 55 percent.
Critics and the industry of course have differing tastes, as indicated by, say, Kristen Stewart winning over 15 critics group awards for her dazzling turn in Spencer but being almost aggressively snubbed by the SAGs, whose voting body overlaps greatly with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Even so, it’s not strictly matters of taste or quality that’s led to The Last Duel’s exclusion from major awards consideration.
No, the obvious elephant in the room is that The Last Duel was one of the biggest flops in 2021, and the fact that it couldn’t find an audience in theaters has made it persona non grata among awards voters who might value financial success just as much (if not sometimes more) than perceived artistic merits. Hence why House of Gucci, which was a relative box office hit for an R-rated adult drama during the pandemic, can find itself surprising critics and prognosticators with its adoration from an industry that treats a better movie from the same director like a leper.
This is unfortunate, because The Last Duel is genuinely excellent. Despite the typical online wariness that accompanies any movie with uncomfortable subject matter, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Nicole Holofcener’s screenplay proved deft and intelligent in handling its medieval #MeToo story. Taking a page out of Kurosawa’s Rashomon and dividing its narrative into three incongruent accounts of the same events, the film recalls the last legally sanctioned duel in France fought after Marguerite de Carrogues accused a squire and a friend of her husband, Jacques Le Gris, of raping her in 1386.
The screenplay fragments its story from the vantages of Marguerite (Jodie Comer), her priggish husband Sir Jean de Carrouges (Damon), and Le Gris (Adam Driver). All three sections of the film begin with “The Truth according to…” But in a not so subtle invention, Scott lets the words “The Truth” linger for several beats longer after showing Marguerite’s name before the final and most devastating chapter of the film. That’s because the film lays out the obvious to modern eyes: a woman who would subject herself to the danger and indignities of the medieval judicial system in matters of rape, childbirth, or powerful nobility would come bearing only hard truths. But what’s harder to watch is just how similar these ancient patriarchal machinations for ferreting out the truth of a woman’s accusation are to our own modern legal and social treatments of women in the 21st century who dare to risk all by revealing the cruelties and evils of powerful men.
It is also just a gripping drama in which all the performers, but especially Comer, are riveting. Her slow transformation from Jean’s docile doll in Damon’s earliest account of what occurred to the aggrieved victim of a crime who must now subject herself to the horrors of a trial by combat in which she’ll be burned at the stake if her husband falls, is the very definition of high, agonizing drama. It’s as much Comer’s desperate stare as Scott’s masterful command over recreating grisly medieval violence on the screen that makes the climax of The Last Duel so grueling.
There are of course other qualities in the film, such as Affleck’s scene-stealing performance as Count Pierre d’Alencon, Le Gris’ benefactor and a pitch perfect approximation of the medieval equivalent to the frat boy who hides his buddies behind his privilege. It’s one of the best performances of Affleck’s career and a far better judged balance between broad camp and dramatic believability than Jared Leto’s ungainly and tasteless Super Mario Bros. routine in House of Gucci.
More’s the pity then that The Last Duel opened to $4.8 million in its opening weekend. A bad number for any Hollywood wide release, that gross became headline-worthy given The Last Duel’s pedigree and its more than $100 million budget. With its positive reviews and an ensemble that includes the stars of recent Star Wars and Batman movies, this is the type of film that would’ve been a blockbuster 20 years ago. Indeed, it’s been almost exactly so long since Scott’s Gladiator both conquered the box office and then the Best Picture Oscar. But now it cannot even open above $5 million?
Given the ongoing state of the pandemic, all successes and failures seem to be graded on a curve at the box office, and in fact almost all of the perceived Oscar contenders either failed to light the cinemas on fire or threw in the towel on the idea of cultivating a genuine theatrical audience by essentially going straight to streaming on Netflix, Amazon, or Apple. This beleaguered state of the industry is also why what in other circumstances would be the old school Oscar frontrunner—Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story—now looks vulnerable to streaming releases such as The Power of the Dog. It’s also how we’ve gotten to a point where Spider-Man: No Way Home has a long but credible shot at scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Picture by virtue of its ability to make a lot of money.
The lingering aura of failure that hangs over The Last Duel is also slightly ironic since the movie’s found a small silver lining on VOD and streaming, with the film climbing to number one on iTunes. In a recent profile interview with EW, star and co-writer Affleck remarked on this phenomenon. Like many, he’s concluded that the future of such ambitious dramas is on streaming instead of in theaters—especially if they want awards consideration.
“The Last Duel really clinched it for me,” Affleck said. “I’ve had bad movies that didn’t work and I didn’t blink. I know why people didn’t go—because they weren’t good. But I liked what we did. I like what we had to say. I’m really proud of it. So I was really confused. And then to see that it did well on streaming, I thought, ‘Well, there you go. That’s where the audience is.’”
It appears sadly so. And at this rate, it might soon be where more of the serious Oscar nominees are if they don’t want to be excluded due to the increasingly ambivalent gaze of modern moviegoers.