The Tragedy of The Last Duel Flopping at the Box Office

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The Last Duel, which was written by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Nicole Holofcener, was surprisingly refreshing when I saw it several weeks ago in a theater. With the typically lavish production designs you’d expect from a Scott period piece, it felt like the type of Hollywood epic that rarely gets made anymore. Similarly, the screenwriters’ Rashomon-inspired storytelling structure, where we witness the events leading up to the duel from the vantage of the film’s quarreling knights (Damon and Adam Driver), and then the actual woman at the center of this horrible melodrama (Comer), was a striking way of drawing parallels between the barbaric patriarchal double standards of the Middles Ages and those in our own still often tragically flawed cultures.

Made with the pomp and grandeur of films that were once clear blockbusters, such as Scott’s own Gladiator (2000) or Master and Commander (2003), and with an uncomfortable yet proactive subject matter that used to still be the stuff of popular adult dramas like The Accused (1988) or Scott’s own Thelma & Louise (1991), The Last Duel feels in some ways like a relic of the past: a splashy period piece marketed on the appeal of its movie star cast and harrowing subject. On paper, Damon and Affleck are still A-list movie stars, with the latter fresh off being a relatively popular Batman. The film also marks the pair’s first screenplay together since their Oscar winning script for Good Will Hunting (1997), and Driver just did a three-film stint as Kylo Ren in the $4.3 billion-grossing Star Wars Sequel Trilogy.

But all that prestige and box office success in franchise entertainment can’t even translate to a $5 million opening weekend for something that’s adult-skewing and divorced from intellectual property.

There are a myriad of reasons for why this particular movie might’ve flopped, including some audiences being fairly turned off by its subject matter. But whether one considers The Last Duel an artistic success in how it handles this material, or a middle brow attempt by a male director at telling a sensitive story about a woman’s suffering, the film’s failure sends a strong and far simpler message to Hollywood: Expensive, ambitious movies made for adults lose money. Pandemic or not, audiences will show up in droves for familiar franchises and/or superheroes—hence Venom 2 nearly breaking the October opening weekend record earlier this month, and Shang-Chi shattering September’s last month. But a movie dealing with adult themes and challenging ideas, even with the gruesome sword-on-shield carnage that made Scott’s Gladiator a box office and Oscar champ 20 years ago? That’s dead on arrival for audiences who’d rather play in fantasy’s PG-13 sandbox, or with Venom’s big ball of CGI goo.

On social media, I’ve already seen some suggesting that The Last Duel should have been a streaming release. And there’s some cold, despairing logic to that. Older audiences who might be attracted to a movie like The Last Duel are more inclined to stay home and watch whatever’s on Netflix, especially after the pandemic. However, save for the rare instances when Netflix wants to invest in its own prestige, Oscar-courting showcases, finding a streaming service willing to spend this type of money that can produce such an old school spectacle with the type of craft that goes into The Last Duel is rare.

Getting to see such filmmaking on the big screen’s sprawling canvas, with the images skewing toward drama and painful emotions instead of dopamine-tickling popcorn, is rarer still. And with movies like The Last Duel flopping, such projects could soon become outright extinct. Which is a shame when those projects produce things as powerful as Comer’s harrowing performance—or Affleck’s delightfully decadent one. In fact, for those who love cinema, it can be its own type of minor tragedy.

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