Starring: Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Emory Cohen
Genre: Western, Crime, Drama
Channel: Amazon Prime Video
Problems present early for The Duel, with the movie poster showing the opposite name over the two lead actors.
Set in 1860-1880s Texas, the film opens with Woody Harrelson as Abraham Brant, responding to the duel against Jesse Kingston over the treatment of Mexican (and Mexican-American) people in the town of Helena. In this form of duel, the “Helena duel,” players tie hands as not to escape the other, and wield a knife in the free hand to stab their opponent to death. Brant wins and uses his victory, hateful politics and mystique to become the powerful leader and “Preacher” of the small Texas town.
Twenty-two years later the son of the fallen Texan returns to the town as an undercover ranger sent to investigate the disappearance and murder of several Mexican citizens. Liam’s character, David, first intends to leave his wife, Marisol, at home during his investigation because of the dangers, but later decides to take her along after fearing she might leave him. And so, the fear of being single is greater than the fear of being a widower. These are the values of our valiant ranger. Not to mention the amount of time he leaves his wife to be alone with the likes of Abraham and his followers to impress upon her.
Both the story and the acting leave much to be questioned and desired. Liam in particular feels very flat as a performer, using the same indifferent, monotone voice and face in every scene. It was as if the director said, “no matter the stakes, I want you to pretend it doesn’t matter.” The same can be said for his wife Marisol, played by Alice Braga. (Not to mention her own bizarre character arc). Their carelessness led to my own disinterest. Credit can be given to Woody, however, who was far more energetic and loathsome as his character needed to be, though the story gave strange allowances to some of his scenes as well.
For instance, he has an eerie ability of showing up out of nowhere, having not been seen or indicated to be nearby. In one particular fighting scene, Abraham miraculously appears and provides a gun for the unarmed contestant. Where the f*** did he come from! (At this stage we are also 50+ minutes into the movie and there’s no mention of the investigation or missing persons). Outside of that, he also materializes on doorsteps just as folks are coming or going.
Creepier still is the unexplained allure of his cult-ish, religious, malevolent hold on the visitors and townspeople. He paints tattoos on his eyelids and I don’t know why, nor do I have any idea why he has a boxful of snakes in the church during his sermon. All I know is they call him the Preacher and folks follow his leadership.
When David comes into town Abraham offers him position as sheriff, which is worrying on its own, but coupled with the idea that even if Abraham doesn’t suspect his visitor’s true identity, he’s handing him guns and lawful authority over the people. This can only end one of two ways: bad or worse. The plot falls short here because there are far better (and more believable) ways of handling this stranger.
When the plot finally reveals itself, David just happens upon it. There is no build-up or breadcrumbs or explanation as to how he got there, he just rides in and suddenly knows everything. The film falls apart more and more as the story progresses; I found myself taking aggressive notes in this final act.
This is where I’m going to stop because it’s just complaints and spoilers from here. Listen, don’t bother watching this movie. While I didn’t hate it, after all my questions I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have just watched something else.