Underrated/Overlooked: Jim Hemphill on The Duel

Jim Hemphill champions one of the most ambitious (and satisfying) movies of 2016, a wildly original Western that defies expectations at all turns.

Some movies get by on the strength of one or two good ideas that are enough to propel them for two hours; The Duel, a Western written by Matt Cook (Triple 9) and directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith (Wish You Were Here) has enough great premises for a half-dozen movies, and pulls them all together in one of the most ambitious films of 2016. It’s a remarkable piece of work in the way that it provides the archetypal satisfactions of a classic Western while also completely subverting the genre’s conventions – it’s old-fashioned in the best sense, yet also modern and wildly original. In this sense, The Duel stands alongside post-classical masterpieces of the genre like Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders; it shows how the iconography and attitudes of the Western – a genre that’s been repeatedly declared dead since the late 1960s – can still be used to speak to contemporary concerns, and it reaffirms the power of formalist filmmaking in an era when movies are less often directed than they are captured.

Right off the bat, The Duel grabs the viewer by combining two reliable formulas, the revenge tale and a Heart of Darkness-esque journey narrative. In a prologue set during the aftermath of the Civil War, we see a knife fight between two men, Abraham Brand (Woody Harrelson) and Jesse Kingston (Jimmy Lee Jr.). Brand kills Kingston in front of Kingston’s young son David, and we jump forward in time to a period when David (Liam Hemsworth) is a Texas Ranger summoned by the governor (William Sadler) for a new assignment: investigating a series of murders and disappearances of Mexicans near the Rio Grande. Cook’s clever conceit is that the main suspect is Abraham, now a preacher who rules his own small town with a combination of charisma, mysticism and brute force – thus David is being called upon to track down and investigate the man who murdered his father years earlier.

In a way, this is standard stuff for a Western, but Cook starts messing with the formula almost immediately by deflating the revenge narrative; it turns out David never particularly cared for his father and thinks the world is probably a better place without him. By making David more an even-tempered pragmatist than a Searchers-style avenger, Cook completely upends our expectations and forces the viewer’s mind to open – just as we’re settling in for one kind of movie, he and Darcy-Smith let us know that we’re getting something a little different, and they deliver on that promise in one scene after another for 110 minutes. They’re experts at using familiar images and ideas lifted from other movies to new ends; the opening act recalls Apocalypse Now in more than a few ways, with Abraham as a sort of Kurtz figure (a parallel underlined by Harrelson’s shaved head and a lighting design straight out of Storaro), but every time we think The Duel is heading in one direction, it veers off and takes us in another. It’s a masterclass in using genre both as a form of shorthand and as a means of pulling the rug out from under the audience; the opening scenes are ruthlessly efficient, quickly acclimating us by taking advantage of our repository of shared images and stories, but the bulk of the film uses our own knowledge and expectations against us, often with chilling results.

I don’t want to describe the story in much more detail, because part of The Duel‘s appeal comes from the sense of discovery that envelops the viewer as it progresses. Cook and Darcy-Smith use the relationship between David and Abraham as a springboard for several other narratives – I wouldn’t even call them subplots, because at times these narratives take over and become the main plot. There’s a fascinating storyline involving David’s wife, Marisol (Alice Braga), other digressions regarding various townspeople with different relationships to Abraham’s power, and a thriller element connected to the missing and murdered Mexicans. These and other tributaries that flow into the river of the main premise yield thoughtful reflections on power, race and religion that resonate with our present-day political climate without forcing the point; they also generate some of the most viscerally charged filmmaking I’ve seen all year.

Darcy-Smith is a master craftsman whose command of visual language represents something that has become both more rare and more valuable in today’s handheld, impressionistic era. At a time when so many films and television shows slather one look or style over the entire narrative, Darcy-Smith knows the power of finding a precise image for each idea and emotion. Every composition and cut has a purpose, and there’s a dynamism and variety to The Duel that makes it alive in a way few other contemporary films are – it contains Malick-style lyricism alongside the brutal visual percussiveness of something like Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, then throws in the epic grandeur of Ford while still digging into the grime and nastiness of the human condition that one finds in Peckinpah. Yet this is not just a pastiche or collection of references; Darcy-Smith isn’t a rip-off artist. He has completely absorbed his influences and assimilates them into something fresh and new that is greater than the sum of its parts, and its antecedents are as often literary (at its best the movie earns comparison with both Cormac McCarthy and the Western fiction of Elmore Leonard) as cinematic.

The clear intention behind Darcy-Smith’s framing gives it weight and substance, and both conveys confidence on the part of the filmmaker and instills confidence in the audience – we sense, even if only subconsciously, that we’re in good hands in a way that we don’t from a film like, say, Jason Bourne, where the handheld camera is just aimed like a scattergun at whatever happens to be in the general area. The sense of weight extends to the performances, which are uniformly excellent; the movie is perfectly cast from top to bottom, with a richness that one finds in the stock companies of Ford or Bergman. That said, above all else the movie is a powerhouse showcase for its two leads. It takes a lot of chutzpah to take on a part partly modeled on Brando in Apocalypse Now, but Harrelson rises to the challenge with a performance that is heightened and hypnotic yet utterly believable – I’ve rarely seen work so stylized and entertaining that remains as grounded and nuanced. In lesser hands, the role of Abraham would seem silly or like a phony literary construct, but Harrelson turns him into one of the great villains in the history of movies – a charming, subtly terrifying embodiment of evil as compelling as Harry Lime. In his own understated way, Hemsworth is equally strong, forceful in a way that might surprise viewers who know him only from his work as the amiable male lead in the Hunger Games movies. Watching Harrelson and Hemsworth go head to head in The Duel is like watching John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in Red River, or Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan in My Darling Clementine. They’re that good.

So is the movie as a whole. The Duel received only a perfunctory theatrical release earlier this year before finding its way to Redbox kiosks and the usual VOD platforms, and it was relatively unheralded by critics – many of the reviews I read missed the point entirely, seeing the film’s expansiveness as somehow messy or unwieldy. As someone who wrote about movies for years before becoming a filmmaker myself, I probably have more sympathy and respect for critics than many of my colleagues, but I do grow tired of the critical tendency to complain that there’s nothing new out there and then, when faced with something truly new like The Duel, to casually dismiss it rather than wrestle with its challenges and provocations. This is a movie that deserves more serious consideration from critics, audiences, and the filmmaking community at large – it’s a vital piece of work by people who know exactly what they’re doing. This is not a case of a movie trying to do too much and falling short (though I still prefer that kind of “failure” to movies that “succeed” at tilling the same old soil) – it’s a movie in which a writer, director, and actors firmly in control of their tools and aware of their traditions set out to compete with the classics of their genre and succeed. Everything about it is unique and unpredictable – even the title duel isn’t between the characters you expect – and if the filmmakers haven’t yet received the accolades that they deserve, they’ll just have to settle for what they’ve got: one of the best films of this or any other year.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.