'The Last Duel' is the Death Knell of Prestige Movies
#149: "The Last Duel," "The Velvet Underground," "Thelma and Louise," "Hush"
Hey movie lovers!
In this week’s newsletter: The swift death of a really good movie has me feeling existential about the future of movies. Somewhere in there we’ll discuss The Last Duel, plus an acknowledgement I don’t really understand the trippy new documentary The Velvet Underground. As always, I’ve got some good streaming suggestions for ya. Then in this week’s “Trailer Watch,” they’ve made a movie out of my favorite video game…ugh.
The Last Duel
No one involved in the making of The Last Duel did so with the intention of becoming such a symbol of our current moment in the movie industry, but then again, rarely do we ever get to choose our place in history.
Ridley Scott’s medieval epic will be remembered not for what it is but what it represents — the final death knell for big, old-school prestige Hollywood movies, at least as any sort of commercial product.
That may sound overly dramatic, but The Last Duel checked all the boxes for Old World success — a $100 million production with four movie stars, a big name director, and critical buzz — and opened to $4.7 million at the box office (a disaster, had it been the least bit surprising).
Meanwhile, the movie that raked in over $50 million this weekend was Halloween Kills — the 12th installment in a franchise, almost universally crapped on by critics, whose star is quite literally hidden behind a mask.
Never before has the proverbial ‘name on the front of the jersey’ mattered so much more than the names on the back. A brand name (Intellectual Property, IP) isn’t just the most valuable asset nowadays, it’s the only asset that matters. To believe things like movie stardom, prestige or *adjusts glasses* quality are still market forces is hopelessly quaint.
That’s no attempt to stand as some sort of art-vs-commerce crusader. There was a time, and it seems like ages ago, when studios could rely on a “if you build it, they will come” philosophy around good movies (Ridley Scott’s similar release Gladiator was the third biggest movie in America released in 2000). Or, failing that, they could still making a killing on VHS, DVD and after market sales. (People seem to forget that long before Covid-19, many people *gasp* preferred to watch movies in their living room.)
What’s more, “TV” has completely replaced the cultural cachet movies once carried. No movie this year will come close to the cultural blockbuster of “Squid Game,” and the same goes last year for “The Queen’s Gambit” or “Bridgerton,” all projects that would’ve just been prestige movies had they been produced 20 or even 10 years ago (“Squid Game” creator Hwang Dong-hyuk confirmed this explicitly, saying he developed the idea as a standalone feature in 2008).
The only reason for movies like The Last Duel to exist now or in the future is as a vanity play for studios competing for little trophies, which carry little currency outside the a C-suite manhood-measuring contest around Hollywood. The conglomerate parent companies that own the studios know these money-suckers will need to be subsidized by the success of the 14th X-Men sequel.
In this New World, to love such movies is to accept that you’re iconoclastic.
Fine by me. Because what The Last Duel actually IS is an old school epic drama, a pure display of quality in every department from the gritty, bleak gray lighting to whoever came up with Matt Damon’s disgusting mullet to the smirk on Ben Affleck’s face when he yells at Adam Driver to “take your pants off!”
The script reunites Damon and Affleck as co-writers for the first time since Good Will Hunting, and with an assist from the talented Nicole Holofcener they paint the medieval feudal system like the frat house it almost certainly was.
This story is an almost painfully obvious allegory for our modern #MeToo movement, based on the true story of the last judicial trial by combat in 1386 France. On one side stands Damon, an insecure squire who suffers from a Napoleonic Complex and a constant grudge against the world. His friend-turned-nemesis is Driver, an arrogant womanizer who gains evermore favor in the court by being party bro’s with the local Count, played by Affleck.
Caught in the middle is Jodie Comer, wife to Damon and the apple of Driver’s eye. The story is told in three sections, retelling the same events from the perspective of Damon, then Driver, and finally Comer. The movie could not be any less subtle in indicating that the truth belongs entirely to her section, which feels a bit cheap but is entirely necessary to pay off the theme of the movie that a woman’s truth is never as powerful as a man’s ego.
Comer’s performance is outstanding in what is essentially three different roles — loving wife in Damon’s telling, seductress in Driver’s, and voice of reason in her own. She embodies each with humanity and really owns the screen against some of the biggest screen presences in recent history. She’s unlikely to be nominated due to this movie’s total lack of traction but I’d consider this among the very best acting performances of the year.
It helps that Driver has proven to be one of the most generous scene partners in Hollywood, more than willing to be outshined by his co-stars (I’m thinking of BlacKkKlansman, Marriage Story, even Star Wars) while producing nothing but interesting work himself.
As for Damon, it seems he continues to pursue penance either for the good-ol-boy coronation that birthed his and Affleck’s careers with an Oscar at 27 or for the man who made it happen (Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax produced GWH and other early hits) … or for the fact that he only learned he shouldn’t use the f-slur … three months ago. Many of his recent projects have either included de-glamming (the term given to actresses who uglify themselves in order to be taken more seriously) or satirizing his white, privileged moviestarness.
One could make a million excuses for the failure of The Last Duel, not the least of which is that it’s a movie about a rape allegation (including two separate scenes in which we see said rape occur) released to audiences who have never been less ready to accept material that is upsetting or unresolved (see: Bond, James).
While no one can deny the seriousness of the movie’s subject matter, it never wallows or drags. This is part action movie, part courtroom drama, part palace intrigue. There are a surprising number of comedic moments, mostly coming from Affleck, and nobody shoots the brutality and excitement of combat scenes better than Ridley Scott. The final duel brings all of the drama you might remember from Gladiator and pays off the extended lead-up well.
I’d like to believe that good movies like this one will eventually find their audience, even if that audience is watching the three sections in separate sittings or on their phone. And maybe just maybe after reading this you’ll be one of them?
The Velvet Underground (Theaters, AppleTV+): Around New York City in the 1960s sprung up a Medici-level community of creative talent, with an incredible concentration of writers, filmmakers, philosophers, musicians and artists all interacting and collaborating. My journey over the summer down the Bob Dylan rabbit hole gave me a false sense of what it meant to be “counter-cultural” in that time and place, a misconception corrected by the new documentary on the avant-garde band “The Velvet Underground.”
I can’t admit to being a fan of their music, or the type of person who responds to the eccentricities of Andy Warhol (the band’s original manager and all around spirit animal), but respected filmmaker Todd Haynes (Dark Waters, I’m Not There) completely immerses viewers in that world of artistic chaos. It’s fascinating to compare it to the music scene happening on the west coast at the same time (captured in the documentary I LOVE Echoes in the Canyon). This movie will probably be best enjoyed by big fans and kindred spirits, but as an artistic remnant of a bygone era and an extremely high level piece of documentary filmmaking, I definitely co-sign.
Thelma and Louise (1991): Ridley Scott doesn’t have quite the same reputation as his contemporaries, due to his preference for big commercial (and therefore less auteur) projects, but with The Last Duel out and House of Gucci coming soon, his career is ripe for reappraisal. Of course there’s the classics Alien and Blade Runner, there’s the prime years of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, all the way up through American Gangster, Kingdom of Heaven and The Martian.
But if you look at his credits, the one that doesn’t really belong is Thelma and Louise. It’s a road trip movie following two women (played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis) who go on a crime spree, but it’s told with a sort joyous slapstick that’s closer to the Coens’ Raising Arizona than anything Scott has done before or since. It’s got a great 1990s supporting cast — Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Christopher McDonald and a young Brad Pitt — and an iconic ending which you’ll always hear mentioned in movie conversations to this day.
Something to Stream
Hush (Netflix): As has been established many times in this newsletter, the horror genre is a major blindspot in my movie fandom. I haven’t seen many of the classic franchise entries, but with Halloween around the corner it didn’t seem right now to pass along one scary movie that is a little off the beaten path which I am a big fan of, even if it’s not Halloween-themed. It’s a super simple premise: a deaf writer lives alone in a remote house, when one night a masked intruder shows up and tries to break in. I won’t give anything else away, other than to say that the movie has some twists and some depth you wouldn’t expect, to go with the purely visceral 81-minute thrill ride. Look at me getting in the spirit!
Trailer Watch: Uncharted
It was a big week for trailers, including our first look at Matt Reeves’ The Batman, George Clooney’s The Tender Bar, 45 seconds (as it should be!) worth of Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s awards hopeful The Lost Daughter.
But Uncharted holds a special place in my heart, because it’s my favorite video game franchise of all time and because I wrote a long feature on the man who played its hero, Nathan Drake. So I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about this world and these characters, and like so many fans of comic books or novels or Broadway shows who have seen their works adapted on the silver screen, I’m ready to get mad about it.
Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg co-star in what they’ve turned into teen bob Indiana Jones, which if I’m able to divorce myself from fidelity to literally everything about the original games, actually might end up being pretty cool?