“The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.
The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.
The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.
The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.
Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.
But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.
For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.
Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.