A cinematically flat, sluggish western that feels altogether bloodless despite offering up several splatterings of runny red stuff, The Duel is a messy misfire, shooting itself in the foot with disjointed storytelling and a lack of artistic vision. It’s a forgettable, muddled affair that’s elevated to a certain extent by two leads whose contrasting styles go together unexpectedly well – just about the only positive note that’s worth pointing out.
Bringing a brooding, poker-faced presence to the rivalry at the center of the film is Liam Hemsworth, who plays Texas Ranger David Kingston. It’s 1866, a time when the Rio Grande acted as the border between Mexico and the United States; when a procession of Mexican corpses start floating down the river, David is sent on an undercover mission by his Ranger superiors to investigate the prime suspect, a religious leader named Abraham Brant (a crackling, witty Woody Harrelson) who lives in a secluded town up the river. Upping the stakes is the fact that a Mexican General’s niece is reportedly being held prisoner; if she dies, an all-out border war is a surefire bet.
Before David hits the road, he’s stopped by his Mexican wife – Marisol, played by Alice Braga – who insists he take her along. Fearing his absence would put an irreparable strain on their marriage, David obliges (surely the risk of bringing her on such a dangerous mission greatly outweighs the risk of leaving her at home for a couple of weeks, but for the sake of high drama, we can let this one slide). When they arrive at the proverbial gates of Abraham’s hell-town, they’re greeted by his bratty son Isaac (Emory Cohen), who’s flanked by a couple of scruffy, stinky henchmen. It’s not the warmest welcome, but Abraham makes up for it by giving them a house to live in and appointing David as the town sheriff, seemingly out of the blue. It’s clear Abraham’s a formidably intelligent target, however, when the cat-and-mouse mind games commence and he begins to drive David and Marisol apart. Our hero’s only way out is to expose Abraham for the monster he is, which proves quite difficult when surrounded only by gun-toting goons and members of the bald-headed preacher’s flock.
Without question, Harrelson is the beating heart of this otherwise comatose production, handily stealing scenes with his charisma and piercing gaze. Abraham, as intimidating a cult leader as any, acts as a nice juxtaposition to David’s hard-hitting, soft-spoken brand of heroism, and it’s easy to imagine that without Harrelson to bounce off of, Hemsworth’s performance would flatline the movie straight away. Thankfully, that’s not the case; the young Aussie actually comes off quite well as the quiet cowboy, boasting an imposing frame and tough-guy beard that’s perfect for his man-of-few-words ruggedness (he’s typically cast as a pretty boy who flirts and giggles with soft-skinned starlets, which pretty much never works for him).
There are some interesting ideas floating around in Matt Cook’s script – religious indoctrination, the mental repercussions of murder, the sweet seduction of revenge – but he and director Kieran Darcy-Smith don’t explore them thoroughly enough. A lot of this can be attributed to tonal wonkiness; the film will sometimes fall into a groove of exploitation campiness (snake party in the church!) only to yank back to reality so that David can sit and reflect on his life and marriage as the sun sets. The film never finds its rhythm and would have derailed completely were it not for Harrelson showing up to balance things out every so often. Braga’s character merely represents another distraction, making head-scratching decisions and judgment calls that feel woefully unexplained at best and downright nonsensical at worst – a fitting tonal description of almost every scene.
Because The Duel goes from serious introspection to campy violence, then back to seriousness again over and over, the gore begins to feel more tasteless and unnecessary from act to act. Inconsistencies like these would have been smoothed out a bit with a more defined visual personality, but alas, there isn’t a single memorable shot to be found in the whole darn thing. There doesn’t seem to be any movement or vigor to the camerawork, which would be okay if the compositions were interesting – but they’re not. The climactic standoff between David and Abraham is actually staged quite well, except by that point, it’s too little, and definitely too late.
The Duel is a forgettable, muddled affair that wastes its two charismatic leads on endless scenes of tonal wonkiness.