The Duel is a new western that feels like an old western, but not in a good way. Writer Matt Cook (Triple 9) and director Kieran Darcy-Smith essentially serve up a pale imitation of Quentin Tarantino’s past two films, since The Duel is boringly talky for long stretches (I heard more than a few snores at the screening I attended), it is punctuated by excessive brutality, and every story element seems to have been stolen from some other film. I don’t mean that as a slight toward Tarantino, because his talky dialogue is entertaining, his brutality is motivated (or, at least, cathartic), and the movies he steals from are obscure enough that you don’t see every turn of the plot coming a mile away. Not so with The Duel.
Heck, even “the duel” of the title just plays like an olde-timey, 19th Century reimagining of the knife fight from Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. The competitors tie one arm to each other and then try to stab their opponent to death. This is the way that our hero’s father dies, tied to Woody Harrelson’s villainous Abraham and then bled out before his young son’s eyes while the opening credits roll.
Fast-forward a few decades and that little boy has become a dashing Texas Ranger named David (Liam Hemsworth). Assigned to secretly gather evidence about a number of Mexicans who were mysteriously kidnapped and murdered, David finds himself thrown together again with the man who killed his father. This is because the murderous Abraham has now become the mayor, charismatic religious leader, and the basic be-all and end-all of the small town nearest to where the bodies were discovered. David’s Mexican wife Marisol (played by Alice Braga, niece of Sonia Braga) demands to come along with him, so the pair pretend to be drifters looking for a new place to live. When the couple encounters Abraham, he is so taken with Marisol that he magnanimously offers them a house to stay in and a position for David as the town sheriff.
David takes the job because he figures it’s a good enough cover while he snoops around for the sake of his real investigation. A friendly prostitute (Felicity Price) provides the requisite warning that all is not what it seems in the town. David encounters resistance from Abraham’s son, named — wait for it — Isaac (Emory Cohen), but one of the film’s missteps is that it paints Isaac as mostly a petulant jerk and not necessarily someone cunning or cruel enough to deserve the kind of violent retribution that David inevitably dishes out later in the film. In one of the film’s worst developed and least convincing subplots, Abraham takes advantage of David’s time spent away from home investigating as an opportunity to start poisoning Marisol’s mind against her husband. I kept waiting for some kind of revelation that Marisol was being drugged or something, because, while Braga gives a fine performance, even she can’t make her character’s 180-degree-turn in favor of the clearly evil Abraham make a whole heck of a lot of sense.
Then again, maybe Abraham is magic. The film tries to point toward an undefined metaphysical power as a governing element within this small town — the citizens are transfixed, snake-handling cult members essentially — but it can’t seem to make it stick. Just as unconvincingly, David encounters an Indian while walking near the river where the bodies were discovered, and she spouts a bunch of would-be-mystical hooey about how “the river divides life and death,” and other sub-Oliver Stone nonsense like that.
Again and again, Woody Harrelson is shot in shadow with a bright backlight, emphasizing his smooth, shaved head. This visual choice, coupled with his character’s propensity to offer philosophical musings and “prophecies” that sound like poor translations of 1970s kung fu dialogue, inevitably makes the character appear like an inferior knock-off of Marlon Brando’s Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Now, I’m a big fan of Woody Harrelson; in my estimation, his work in No Country for Old Men is one of the finest character performances of the 21st Century. But neither the material nor the direction do him any favors here.
The same can be said for our lead, Liam Hemsworth, who acquits himself well enough in a contradictory, underwritten role. Early on, David states to his wife that he has taken this case because it is his job, and he has no intention of seeking revenge. Shortly afterward, Abraham drops a hint that he has figured out who David really is, and David refuses to take the bait and puts his head down. *sigh* Granted, in another film, it could be an interesting wrinkle to have the main character effectively repress his desire for revenge, but here it just makes David feel emotionally flat and cartoonishly dedicated to his job. Considering where the story goes (more on that in a moment, if you don’t mind spoilers), maybe the intention was to show the even-tempered David succumb to the anger in his heart and feel pushed to take revenge, but the film fails to effectively connect those emotional dots.
In the most frustrating turn of events in the film, all of the investigating that David has been doing ends up basically being pointless, because his entire mystery is solved once he finally follows behind Abraham and his gang and watches them do their nefarious business. *START SPOILER* Almost as frustrating is the revelation that the screenwriter has decided to deliver the four millionth cinematic variation on The Most Dangerous Game, with Abraham and his crew selling off opportunities to hunt and kill random Mexicans. *END SPOILER*
It all ends with a handful of dudes getting their brains blown out, their guts blown up, or their faces blown off. One guy very graphically loses a foot. I love westerns, and I love action movies in general, but these violent moments don’t offer satisfying thematic closure to the story or reveal anything new and interesting about the characters. Honestly, they don’t even look all that cool. The entire cast deserved better.
The Duel arrives in select theaters and on video-on-demand on Friday, June 24.