Article Thumbnail

In ‘The Last Duel,’ Matt Damon and Ben Affleck Want You to Know They Know Men Are Bad

This revisionist medieval drama chronicles a knight’s quest to get justice for his wife after his former best friend rapes her. But the film is most fascinating as a possible mea culpa from the ‘Good Will Hunting’ stars for their own toxic behavior

In the wake of #MeToo, a lot of men struggled to know what to do. Some loudly insisted that they weren’t those kinds of men, while some quietly thought back to their own questionable behavior, and the questionable behavior they’d witnessed in other men. There was a lot of reckoning and reflection, but also a lot of denial and defensiveness. But beyond the raised awareness of sexual assault in our society that #MeToo prompted, the movement also underlined the general shittiness of men — specifically, all the small, crucial ways in which a patriarchal culture creates misery and inequality on a daily basis. For any man who felt indicted in that criticism — and, in a sense, just about all men are complicit — the difficulty came in knowing quite how to rectify that imbalance. I’m a man who means well, but yet I’m still part of the problem — so what should I do? 

Most of us didn’t have to grapple with being in the public eye in that moment. In other words, most of us aren’t Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the longtime friends with the adorable backstory whose reputations took a serious hit after #MeToo. When they were starting out, they were just sweet kids who had a dream of breaking into Hollywood. But their early success had been spurred by their friendship with Harvey Weinstein, whose years of sexual abuse finally led to his downfall. 

However, it wasn’t just the company they kept that opened them up for criticism. One Tree Hill star Hilarie Burton accused Affleck of groping her. (He later apologized.) And beyond sexual misconduct, Damon and Affleck came to represent toxic masculinity in all its forms, whether it was Damon whitesplaining to Black producer Effie Brown on Project Greenlight, Damon recently admitting to his belated realization that straight people shouldn’t use homophobic language as a joke, or the two friends throwing their support behind Affleck’s brother Casey during his Oscar campaign for Manchester by the Sea, even though he’d been accused of sexual harrassing women on the set of his film I’m Still Here. Their entitled, tone-deaf behavior ran counter to their sterling image as likeable Hollywood stars, which made all the comebacks and second chances Affleck has received in his career even more conspicuous. Didn’t they have any awareness of how they came across? Didn’t they feel remotely guilty about their behavior?

It’s very tempting to view The Last Duel as their mea culpa. A period drama set in the 14th century built around a battle to the death between two men — one whose wife accused the other man of raping her — it’s fairly explicit in its themes. As film critic Jessica Kiang put it in her review, The Last Duel “illustrat[es] … how men are now and have always been, the absolute fucking worst.” And while I wouldn’t want to give them, or costar Adam Driver or director Ridley Scott, too much credit for this not-especially-novel insight, the genuineness of their purpose is nonetheless pretty striking. The characters we meet in this film aren’t just shitty men — they’re rotten, horrible, spiritually ugly individuals — and the performances don’t try to distance themselves from that ugliness. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Damon and Affleck are tapping into something primal about toxic masculinity that, being men, they know exists in all men. The Last Duel is a monument to self-loathing dressed up as a righteous revenge tale and a knights-with-swords adventure. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I can’t believe a studio let them make it.

As the film begins, we’re in France around the year 1386, and what follows is based on a true story, adapted from Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France. Jean de Carrouges (Damon) is a noble soldier fighting in the king’s army alongside his good friend Jacques Le Gris (Driver). They both hope to curry favor with Count Pierre d’Alençon (Affleck), a vain baron who’s the king’s cousin. A gruesome scar across his face, permanent proof of his courage on the battlefield, Jean is dangerously low on money, but his fortunes seem to change when he marries Marguerite de Carrouges (Jodie Comer), arranging with her father a sizable dowry that includes some bountiful pieces of land. But then things get complicated — Pierre has already promised that land to Jacques, angering Jean — and the two men’s friendship is destroyed in the process.

The Last Duel is told in three chapters, except each one essentially covers the same material, just from a different character’s perspective. Each version builds to a shocking incident: One day as Jean returns home after visiting the king, he is greeted by his distraught wife, who informs him that, in his absence, Jacques forced his way into their house and raped her. Jean is furious, Jacques denies the accusation, and the two warriors decide to settle their dispute through a duel — the last ever legally permitted in France. Because the film is directed by Scott, the man behind the Oscar-winning Gladiator, there might be an expectation that The Last Duel will similarly chronicle a gallant soldier who restores honor and decency across the land by defeating the bad guy in combat. But quite consciously, the movie subverts all those tropes. The Last Duel has some action, but not a lot, and there aren’t any heroes to be found on screen. Jean and Jacques will eventually battle it out, but there’s nobody to root for. 

This is the first produced screenplay written by Damon and Affleck since they won the Academy Award for Good Will Hunting, and they’re joined by Nicole Holofcener, the superb indie filmmaker behind Please Give and Enough Said. According to the press notes, the three of them divied up the script, with Damon writing Jean’s version of the story, Affleck handling Jacques’, and Holofcener grabbing Marguerite’s. “The reason I came on in is because Matt and Ben are not women,” Holofcener is quoted as saying in the press notes. “Not that they couldn’t write terrific women, plenty of men do, but I think that’s what I was able to add: my perspective as a female, and a different eye and a different voice as well.” 

Matt Damon and Adam Driver

Scott demonstrated in Thelma & Louise (and, less successfully, G.I. Jane) an interest in not just exploring female-driven stories but also investigating how women navigate male-dominated worlds. (With Thelma & Louise, a lot of the credit also needs to go to Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her screenplay.) And although he does pay special attention to Marguerite, especially in the film’s later sections, The Last Duel is more focused on a society in which Jean and Jacques get to be heroes — and get to think of themselves as such. Some may object to Marguerite being a slightly-less-prominent character than Jean and Jacques, but I think that strategy actually benefits the film, which ironically positions these two men’s growing feud as its central drama. Sure, Jacques may have raped Marguerite, but The Last Duel facetiously privileges Jean’s outrage and Jacques’ protestations of innocence over her trauma. The Last Duel is about how a woman’s sexual assault impacts two dudes.

If you’re not paying attention, you won’t notice the massive amounts of sarcasm in Scott’s approach. But if it’s not clear, just watch the performances, especially Damon’s. This summer, Damon starred in Stillwater, a strained attempt to “understand” red-state America in which the very liberal movie star played a conservative, regular-joe Midwesterner. The entire point of Damon’s portrayal was to wow us with his ability to access the humanity of a guy who probably would have voted for Trump — what an incredible actor to show such range! — but deep down that character had a good heart and was capable of change. (He wasn’t really a bad guy.) That’s not the case with Jean, and it starts with his absolutely ridiculous hair. Initially, it will seem distracting and goofy that Damon is rocking the 14th-century equivalent of a mullet, but the longer The Last Duel rolls along, you may start to surmise that it’s supposed to be hideous. How better to signal what a douchebag Jean is than by giving him the appropriate modern haircut?

I can’t think of a film in which Damon comes across more pathetically than The Last Duel, and what’s most impressive about it is the lack of vanity. Jean is a brave warrior, or is he? In Jean’s version of the story, he rides into battle, fearless and inspiring, but in Jacques’ version, Jean is more hesitant. (Tellingly, in each man’s version of one particular showdown with the English army, they’re the one who saves the other man’s life.) This which-story-is-correct? structure will draw comparisons to Rashomon, but I’d advise viewers not to get too hung up on whose take is “right.” What matters is that Jean is desperately attached to this idea of being seen as a valiant knight, even though he’s broke, Pierre prefers Jacques, and Jacques is far more handsome and charming than he is. (As opposed to Jean’s facial scar and atrocious ‘do, Jacques doesn’t have a mark on him, and his long, luxurious locks make him a medieval dreamboat.) 

Damon as Jean de Carrouges

That description might give off the impression that Jean is meant to be an endearing underdog or a misunderstood soul, but nothing could be further from the truth. In The Last Duel, he’s a petty, jealous little man who thinks the king owes him for all his selfless service. And after Jean feels betrayed by Pierre’s land grab, Marguerite’s shocking news of her rape only intensifies his anger and self-pity. Jacques has insulted his manhood by violating his wife — Jean can’t let that stand. And if you start to wonder if Jean’s more concerned about avenging his pride than his wife, the actual rape survivor, that’s entirely the point. Damon emphasizes the character’s whiny, spineless version of manliness, almost as if Jean is play-acting being in a traditional knights-of-the-round-table action-adventure. But this entitled putz will never be a true hero, and the more that he tries to assume the mantle, the more darkly comic it is.

Pierre isn’t on screen that much, but the character’s dopey blond hair and stupid chin whiskers help signal that he, too, is a bozo. That said, Affleck’s real contribution to The Last Duel’s skewering of bad men is his writing of Jacques, who’s played to perfection by Driver. Oddly enough, Driver’s take on Jacques isn’t appreciably different from what he did as Kylo Ren in the recent Star Wars trilogy: They’re both men who work very hard to project a regal air when, deep down, they’re pretty insecure. But where Jean is mocked in the kingdom for his delusions of grandeur, Jacques is viewed much more favorably, which he uses to his advantage. After the disputed incident with Marguerite, Jacques’ defense is, hey, he’s a handsome, likeable fellow — he doesn’t need to rape a woman — and it’s despressing how effective that defense is. 

In films like Patterson and Marriage Story, Driver has delivered nuanced portrayals of sensitive masculinity — he’s an extremely empathetic onscreen presence — but he weaponizes that quality in The Last Duel by playing an orgy-loving bachelor who’s convinced the fair Marguerite loves him as much as he loves her. After all, doesn’t she know that Jacques has decided they’re destined to be together? 

As we’ll discover, it’s not a question of whether he forced himself on Marguerite — in the film’s world, it’s merely a debate over how much she secretly wanted him to seduce her. Sometimes rather clumsily, The Last Duel makes it apparent that these 14th-century issues couldn’t be more timely — consent remains a despairingly contentious topic — and yet I didn’t entirely mind the movie’s blunt-force obviousness. The film comes across as a painful self-flagellation by its male creators, and one could almost read The Last Duel as an Eastwood-ian reconsideration of an entire genre of male-driven, valiant-hero cinema. The film has all the ingredients of a chivalrous battle between good and evil in which the damsel in distress is avenged by her loyal champion, except all the building blocks are inverted and dissected, the macho assumptions underneath exposed for the blustering bullshit that they are. 

Again and again, The Last Duel refuses to be the kind of movie you expect it to be — I can’t imagine this thing making any money — and instead asks you to question how these types of stories poison the way we think about “brave men” and “helpless women.” It’s a nervy experiment in subverting expectations disguised as big-budget bro-cinema.

The Last Duel is far from perfect. At two-and-a-half hours, the film drags a ton, which is probably inevitable when you tell the same prolonged story three different times. And while the commentary is new for the genre, the trappings sure aren’t. (The palace intrigue and battle scenes are pretty standard.) And some may object to seeing the rape scene not once but twice. I will say, though, that the crucial differences between the two versions — one from Jacques’ perspective, one from Marguerite’s — are so affecting (and not at all titillating or exploitative) that it casts a fitting pall over the rest of the film. Scott had a scene involving a near rape in Thelma & Louise, too, and once again he manages to highlight the violence and cruelty of the crime without lingering on the act in an emotionally manipulative way. 

Jodie Comer as Marguerite de Carrouges

And now it’s time to talk about Comer. Marguerite’s story is the last of the three to be told, and while we’ve seen the character in the first two versions, Comer plays her in a new way when it’s her telling, expanding not just our understanding of the assault but also all the other aggravations and anxieties that she faced beforehand. Turns out, her view of her marriage to Jean is vastly different than his, and in this segment she gets to be a three-dimensional character, not just the emotional prop that prompts the eventual duel between Jean and Jacques. And once the rape’s aftermath occurs, Marguerite’s hell only gets worse. (Pierre controls the courts, which are sympathetic to Jacques and inclined to believe she’s lying.) Marguerite isn’t as developed a character as those two men, but The Last Duel tries to give her an equal voice.

My guess is that people will have varied reactions to this film, and those probably will be colored by one’s feelings about Damon and Affleck — and by how much you’re willing to buy that they made The Last Duel as a good-faith effort to acknowledge the evils of toxic men. After #MeToo, it was pretty easy for some art to essentially say, “Men suck, amirite?!?” as a way to score cheap performative points, and there are times in The Last Duel where the same tendency occurs. 

But when the film really works is when its male makers are willing to hold their own feet to the fire, crafting a movie about male heroism that argues that it’s a lie and always has been. The Last Duel feels like public penance on a scale that’s utterly unique in Hollywood since the fall of Weinstein. Ridley Scott and his stars won’t even let their audience enjoy that long-awaited titular duel that serves as the film’s “grand” finale. As throughout the film, the conventions get thrown out the window, replaced by a grimmer recognition of how history is shaped by men, catering to their fragile egos. 

As Jean and Jacques slugged it out at the end, I wanted both men to die in horrible fashion — they deserve no better. Not that guys like me should feel too smug about the comeuppance awaiting these two former friends. As The Last Duel makes abundantly clear, self-righteous men’s sense of their own worthiness may not tell the full story.