Welcome to Shot by Shot, our ongoing series of movie and TV trailer breakdowns. We’re constantly scouring for perfect shots, and in this column, we share our favorites and discuss them. In this entry, we cross blades as we cut into The Last Duel trailer.
If you’re looking to get a big historical costume drama on-screen, you merely need to pique Ridley Scott‘s interest. The director can’t shake his costume habit, and we can’t shake the director. His latest movie, set in 14th century France, during the Hundred Years’ War, reunites Scott with sweeping vistas and hordes of extras caked in mud and blood. Based on a true story, The Last Duel depicts the last “trial by combat,” a legally sanctioned fight between the knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and a squire, Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), after Carrouges’ wife, Marguerite (Jodie Comer), accuses Le Gris of sexual assault.
The clashing of swords resolves the dispute. If Carrouges comes out the victor, God has decreed Marguerite righteous, and his honor will be restored. If Le Gris wins in combat, God has condemned Marguerite’s lies, and she must burn at the stake. Presiding over the match is Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). He is a supporting character in the movie but a critical figure during the Hundred Years’ War. Before these events, he was held hostage by the British for nearly fifteen years until he was exchanged for King John after the Battle of Poitiers.
Watch the new trailer for The Last Duel here:
A lot of concern swarmed The Last Duel during its production. One, due to its grim subject matter, some thought Disney would sell the property after their Fox merger. Two, it’s a screenwriting reunion for Damon and Affleck, who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1998 for Good Will Hunting, plus a bonus partnership with Nicole Holofcener, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for Can You Ever Forgive Me? in 2019. Three, the massive movie was forced to halt production amidst Covid, and getting such a beast back up and running was a colossal endeavor.
All of that falls by the wayside now that the trailer for The Last Duel is here. What we witness in the shots below is Ridley Scott doing what he does best: trapping actors in wretched history and having them match their epic setting with grandiose performances. While these particular Scott vehicles don’t always pan out, we’re hoping for a Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven (director’s cut, of course) rather than a Robin Hood or Exodus: Gods and Kings.
The Last Duel trailer starts small with Marguerite being accosted by the only question that matters: “Do you swear on your life that what you say is true?” The movie reveals itself in tiny strips over black. We’re in prison with her until the trailer blows open, and we are buffeted by Ridley Scott violence. This first wide shot, depicting the surge of humanity rushing toward the combat arena, reveals our hunger for supervised bloodshed. We can’t control the royal whims that dictate our fate, but we can happily munch on snacks and watch these lords do each other in.
Here is our first meeting between knight and squire. The trick is not to be distracted by Damon’s handsome mullet and gnarly facial scars. Observe Comer’s death-stare slicing through Carrouges and Le Gris’ handshake. Whatever has occurred between her and Le Gris is firmly rooted in the past. She appears petrified by her husband’s camaraderie. Their embrace is her enslavement.
Not to be outdone by Damon’s mullet, Affleck is sporting an equally fresh look. Marguerite speaks over this shot, explaining how she was, at some point, a good wife, but it led only to judgment and shame. Affleck’s d’Alençon squirms in his seat. His comfort does not appear as easily obtained as the subjects that surround his stage. The duel is an absurd act and on its way out as far as its legal binding is concerned. As the last one ever sanctioned in France, we see how its observers struggle with the execution. Yet, no one dares stop it; they’re still bonded to the system and the religious and patriarchal terror driving it.
Inside the arena, the rules are decreed. Carrouges and Le Gris are strapped into their armor and mounted on their horses. Their game faces appear strong, their stride less so. As Marguerite is forced to profess her truth to the crowd, we watch two men on horseback collide with each other. Ridley Scott is slamming hard into the folly and the futility behind the action.
It’s all pomp and circumstance. We’re watching boys playing men, passing gold scepters between each other as if there was any real meaning to the gesture. Except, there is real meaning there. As the Last Duel trailer fires directly at Marguerite when d’Alençon hands the gold over to Le Gris, “The truth does not matter; there is only the power of men.” What they decree meaningful is meaningful. Those seated above you write your future. Breaking that process demands a drastic course.
Carrouges goes before King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and requests his duel to the death. Does anything underscore the childish nature of royalty more than an actual child royal? How about a mad one? King Charles began his reign known as “The Beloved,” but eventually, he would earn the title “The Mad.” The kid king is ultimately consumed by mental illness, terrifying those around him with extreme psychotic episodes. It was not uncommon for Charles to be constrained by his advisors during these frenzied outbursts. He also believed that he was made of glass, and this delusion drove him to wear iron rods in his clothes so he would not shatter if he collapsed on the floor or into another person.
Carrouges grabs hold of Marguerite and exclaims how he is risking his life for her. But she retorts, “You are risking my life so you can save your pride.” It’s the Last Duel trailer’s mic drop moment, nearly ruined by a few folks in the background. Go rewatch the sequence. I’ll wait. Those two extras are aghast! They appeared on set ready to act, and they did so with every fiber of their being. I’d be annoyed if their comically dropped gobs weren’t so entertaining.
The killing blow is prepared. Carrouges tightens his grip on the blade and approaches Le Gris. What happens next can easily be spoiled via Wikipedia. The climax belongs to history, and history is rarely cheery. And Scott’s histories are even less so.
The Last Duel hits theaters on October 15th.