I have always been and will continue to be, barring any drastic developments, a Ben Affleck apologist. 2021 was a good year for people like me, who don’t all live in Boston, actually. He and J-Lo reuniting and flooding everyone’s timeline with pap pics where he looks happy instead of ones where he is forlorn and smoking, the “actual” Justice League movie coming out, plus his role in George Clooney’s directorial effort The Tender Bar (which I have not seen but sounds pretty bad). This week, Affleck was nominated for a SAG award for Best Supporting Actor, which you would think would be cause for celebration, but my excitement was greatly undercut by the fact that he got nominated for the wrong performance. The SAG nominated Ben for The Tender Bar and not what must be his far superior and more memorable turn in The Last Duel, confirming what I and many other disgruntled lay people have always suspected to be true: most entertainment awards committees hate fun and are fundamentally incapable of recognizing true talent.
By just about every metric other than critical, The Last Duel did very, very badly upon its release. Against a budget of $100 million, it barely made $30 million. Compare that to Ridley Scott’s other 2021 movie, House of Gucci, which broke even and then some. Duel boasts a small, impressive cast, but there’s less appetite for dragon-free historical fiction these days, let alone the long, involved, and fairly action-less kind that used to be Hollywood’s bread and butter. Annoyingly, there was also the subject of whether Damon and Affleck, as co-writers of the script along with Nicole Holofcener, were the right people to tell a story about a rape. When Scott (stupidly) blamed millennial apathy for his film’s poor box office showing, critics on Twitter were quick to (more stupidly) claim the real reason was that everyone is tired of men writing stories about sexual violence. Of course, Holofcener’s contribution was either outright ignored or paraded around as a bit of clever ass-covering, with any sensitivity or nuance in relation to the female characters attributed to her alone. Naturally, these people didn’t watch the movie on the grounds of not wanting to “support” it.
That last part’s ironic not just because we continue to have the same vapid, roundabout conversation as to who is allowed to make what for which reasons and seem to arrive at the same shallow conclusions, but because, in a movie about men (plus a few women) not believing women, a lot of people didn’t seem to believe that the woman who co-wrote and co-produced it, or the actress portraying the central role, had much to contribute.
Still, The Last Duel had plenty of vocal defenders, and over time Affleck’s performance as Count Pierre d'Alençon became a word-of-mouth selling point for the film: He’s platinum blonde, he’s captivating, he’s doing a fun little spin on Prince John from the 1973 animated Robin Hood. Truly, Affleck’s dopey portrayal of a rich, powerful man so positively bored, unimpressed, and continually spoiled by life that he leaves his own taste about which shade of gold he likes best up to other people is a stroke of genius.
Take just one scene: Some ways into the film, Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris, a knight of some distinction who radiates bad vibes and lusts after the wife of his one-time friend Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon, with a mullet), furiously bangs on the bedchamber door of his master, the Count. The Count swings open the door in nothing but an ornate overshirt, telegraphing plain disgust, until he recognizes Le Gris, his bro, his buddy, his ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary and boring corner of 14th century France. “He’s suing me!” Le Gris whines, “he” being de Carrouges, who basically everyone agrees is extremely annoying. But the Count doesn’t hear him because the Count has just been fooling around with two young women who aren’t his wife and he’s just had the bright idea that Le Gris should join him. “Oh! Come in, take your pants off,” he says, Affleck imparting his boyish brand of relaxed, winning enthusiasm, like he’s five and someone just gave him candy. “He’s suing you too! He’s suing us both!” Le Gris persists, to which the Count simply laughs, that wide, open-mouthed laugh Affleck does that starts as a smirk before it takes over his whole face. It’s infectious and you smile pretty much every time Affleck comes back on screen because of it.
Frankly, The Last Duel is a great film for multiple reasons, not least of which being that it situates Matt Damon and Affleck, one of Hollywood’s most famous friendships, as two egomaniacal men who hate each other on sight. Jodie Comer delivers the kind of confidently unshowy, yet exquisitely skillful performance that thumps people on the head and reminds them that even if Killing Eve is going down the drain, she’s still one of the most reliably fantastic actors of her generation. For all his weirdness and inability to win people over on the press junket, Adam Driver is a remarkable and eminently watchable performer unafraid to be disliked by the audience, and he can twirl a cape with the best of them. Ridley Scott, who turned 84 in November, is one of the most prolific and hardest working directors in Hollywood today, which wouldn’t count for anything if his movies sucked, but they don’t.
Actors like Affleck seem to attract narratives of degradation as time goes on. They fall off the wagon, flub opportunities for redemption, and follow their noses with promising projects to disastrous effect. When they stage a comeback, it’s short-lived, and when they do it again, it bums people out. Affleck — along with Damon and Scott — has been at various times either underestimated or overrated, growing into his talents or washed up, depending on who you ask. But movies like The Last Duel prove he’s still got it, whatever it is, despite the ridicule and the memes. If you have a soft spot in your heart for him the way I do, every victory just points to something fundamental about his work. He’s not what he once was, but what he is now is still pretty awesome. Give him an Oscar nomination for the “take your pants off” scene alone.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.