Though starring two A-list actors, The Duel went mostly under the radar when it was first released, opening to limited theaters and VOD. It’s not shocking that audiences wouldn’t flock to see a Western since the genre is not nearly as popular as it used to be, yet in recent years it seems to be making a comeback.
Films such as The Hateful Eight, Slow West and Bone Tomahawk have been surprisingly successful, with future Westerns in the pipeline that could be even bigger hits (The Magnificent Seven remake being one example). So the question remains: why would Lionsgate release The Duel to limited theaters and then almost directly to VOD?
Though perhaps only a part of it, I suspect that the film was thrown under the radar due to its overall quality. It’s not entirely forgettable, yet in our current world where even big stars don’t sell movie tickets, The Duel had to have something more in order to really be successful. The film is an unfortunate misfire.
The Anti-Hero vs. the Villain
The Duel takes place during the 1880s near the Mexican border. David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) is a Texas Ranger who is called upon to investigate a series of murders that have been happening near a town called Helena.
The preacher of that town, Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), is the suspected culprit; a man who, coincidentally, also killed David’s father when he was younger. David, along with his wife Marisol (Alice Braga), get settled into the town to discover what Brant is doing to the townspeople.
The trope that most people would associate with the Western is that of the loner cowboy drifting through a helpless town, which is usually held under the grip of some ruthless leader. Here, the trope is bent; not only by having David purposely go to Helena, but also by giving him a developed background.
David is not so much a stereotype as he is a firmly established protagonist. It’s an interesting alternative to the usual story, yet even with this backing, the film manages to slip and falter on its own momentum.
Though the character of David Kingston is well-expanded, Liam Hemsworth doesn’t seem to fit the role. In a slow, drawn-out Western, he feels misplaced, though perhaps not entirely at his own fault. Hemsworth‘s persona might be more fitting in action franchises such as The Hunger Games series or this past summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence. Ultimately, he doesn’t pull off the role of the anti-hero, at least not when compared to recent strong Western roles such as Michael Fassbender‘s performance in Slow West.
Woody Harrelson, on the other hand, is ideal as Abraham Brant. Coincidentally also known for a role in The Hunger Games series, Harrelson has distinguished himself with a variety of diverse performances throughout the years. He is also particularly suited to play villains, seen in his famous role in Natural Born Killers and a more recent performance in 2013’s Out of the Furnace (which is perhaps the only redeeming factor of that film).
Here, his menacing, charismatic charm is ever-present; reminiscent of a slimmer version of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, a film that The Duel reflects in more ways than just performances.
Underdeveloped Backgrounds and Setting
The character of Abraham Brant and the idea of a town coercing around him is clearly influenced by Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece. Where this film is lacking, though, is in its representation of just how mad and influential Brant can be.
There are a few scenes where the townspeople are spellbound by his words, even at one point willingly passing around poisonous snakes in order to show that God will protect them. Yet, the hypocrisy of Brant himself is never fully developed. He is simply a cold-blooded killer who also happens to be a preacher.
The irony is that, despite Harrelson‘s exceptional performance, it is his character that is underdeveloped; whereas with Hemsworth it is the opposite.
The town of Helena itself is also absent in personality in the way it is presented by director Kieran Darcy-Smith. Much of what makes Westerns so captivating is the idea that these frontier towns are almost a character on their own. When looking at them through a film, it’s as if you are witnessing a piece of history. Though an attempt is made to develop Helena in the same way, such as the use of establishing shots when we first see the town, it is mostly absent throughout the remainder of the film.
We also see little of the townspeople, other than those that work directly alongside Brant, and their absence makes it difficult to fully understand why people would stay in a town that is ruled by an obviously psychopathic killer. By not creating a living, breathing town and not showcasing the people within it, an essential building factor of the film is sorely absent.
Confused Politics and Philosophy
The political factors of The Duel become muddled as the story progresses. The film takes place near the Mexican border and only a few decades after the Spanish-American War, and war-torn resentment is shown on both sides. The opening title screen of the film even fills the audience in on this background, in order to show that it will mainly be about this clash.
In one particularly gripping scene, we see David cross a river into Mexico, where he talks to a Mexican woman, who mysteriously warns him to “never cross to the other side.” The idea is that Mexico is seen as life, while America, with its wars and violence, is death.
Rather than expand on this potentially interesting philosophy, though, much of the focus of the film is instead on the contrasting personas of Abraham Brant and David Kingston, which, other than David’s Spanish wife, isn’t necessarily even related to the rift between the Americans and the Mexicans.
Due to the film’s attempt to show a clash not only between these two characters but also between cultures, neither point is ever fully expanded upon. Brant’s decision to become a preacher in order to sway over the people, for example, isn’t necessarily even related to the Mexican-American conflict.
Another philosophical ideal that is touched upon in the film is the idea that one act can influence and change a person’s life. For example, by Brant killing David’s father when he was younger, David was forced to grow up self-sufficient, which in turn made him the determined, hard-boiled person that he is now.
What the film attempts to present is that Brant and David are really the flip sides of the same coin. Once again, though, the lack of backing for this ideal is sorely absent, especially since it’s not really even discussed until the last few minutes of the film. If The Duel were to have focused on purely its political or philosophical undertones, it could have easily been a far more balanced film.
Though with the background of being something potentially more riveting, The Duel is bogged down by a confused set of political philosophies in addition to some lackluster production design. As a twist on the traditional Western but without a strong central focus, the film was seemingly doomed even before director Kieran Darcy-Smith got his hands on it.
Woody Harrelson‘s performance as Abraham Brant is the film’s strongest aspect; it’s just unfortunate that the remainder of The Duel doesn’t bring the same enthusiasm.
What is your favorite modern Western?
The Duel is available on VOD.
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