Today we are looking at The Duel, a 2016 movie that dusts off the classic Western genre by adding a tenebrous glimpse of ambiguity and secrets fluttering in the wind like an old American flag.
It all begins in a remote Texas town of the 1880s, where we meet newcomer David Kingston and the seductive Marisol, his young bride.
The rigid and reclusive community is led by a charismatic preacher, Abraham Brant, whose presence inspires awe and respect among his congregation.
Apparently, Brant immediately sympathizes with David, proving him trustworthy and assigning him the role of sheriff.
In reality, the man has a perverse attraction to his wife and knows that the job will keep the man away from home so he can win and plagiarize her at his will.
However, Brant doesn’t know that David didn’t come to town by accident since the powerful Governor Sullivan Ross has assigned him to investigate the disappearances of many Mexicans along the border.
The governor doesn’t care whether these immigrants are dead or alive, yet he really cares about finding out what happened to the daughter of a major Mexican army bigwig.
David, trying to penetrate the curtain of silence surrounding the town, waits for a conflict that becomes increasingly personal and inevitable.
Growing lonely and unable to ask anyone for help, his existence slowly becomes a dead-end trap amid a population of exalted fanatics.
Indeed, a dark mystery lurks behind the façade of piety and devotion of the highly religious community, while Marisol becomes the object of a dangerous strain between these two men bringing them closer to a final duel they will not escape.
Today’s Western with yesterday’s pace
The Duel from 2016 is a disturbing, macabre, and sometimes grotesque but whispered rather than a visually shouted movie. The violence is not so bloody as insinuating, worming into the plot as a slow poison rather than a frontal attack.
Kieran Darcy-Smith‘s direction is evident in the deliberate pacing, and his imprint is apparent in every sequence, making the piece a harmonious and coherent whole.
However, there are moments when the synthesis could attain greater effect with a more concise narrative instead of stretching out excessively, blunting the tension.
Especially for an audience accustomed to more frenetic rhythms, this choice may seem like an unnecessary slowness, although these people must also recognize that we are dealing with a Western genre that always indulges in the license of dilated narration.
Yet, we cannot label The Duel univocally as a Western because, in many ways, it crosses the borders of this genre, mixing elements of different narrative strands.
Indeed, in the relationships between the characters, we smell shades of romantic drama and psychological thriller. Although the movie does not achieve excellence in any of these, it delivers a solid and convincing outcome.
Thanks to Matt Cook‘s screenplay, the story unfolds with few but exciting twists and turns and a steady rise of tension between the main characters: the sheriff and the preacher.
A duel (as per the title) with more glances and silences than whistling bullets, in the middle of which lies the character of the young and naive bride posing a delicate fulcrum, a point of balance that, in moving, can destabilize the whole system and plunge the entire town into chaos.
Finally, we commend Craig Eastman‘s excellent music, a tasty blend of folk and country that is at the same time surprisingly fresh and modern.
No hope on either side of the border
Liam Hemsworth, fully embracing the harsh edge of his character, personifies a strict Texas Ranger, displaying a face beaming with resolve and tenacity.
In a burst of physical vigor, he is obviously quite apt for action scenes but also stands out, with good charisma to display his character’s weakness and suffering.
Indeed, the youngest of the three Hemsworth brothers shines with an unsuspected light on his own in the most vulnerable situations at the final stage of the movie, when his character is torn apart by physical pain and the anger of betrayal by his wife.
This wife’s character, masterfully played by Alice Braga, emerges as the most enigmatic aspect of the storyline, with a multifaceted path between ambiguity and darkness.
Braga’s skill and beauty in her career range from roles as tender and romantic to action grit, as she proved in 2010’s entertaining Predators, where she is the only woman in a soldier squad battling aliens.
Her character has a radical metamorphosis that culminates in a stern and resolute final transformation, detaching her shadow on a stage of imposing Western epic, where everyone loses and hope for justice seems an unreachable mirage.
Finally, as preacher/dictator, we get Woody Harrelson, a wide-ranging actor with a flair for navigating between comedies and dramas, bringing to life an enemy who belies his evil delusion of omnipotence behind a veil of religious rationality.
Religion, which foundation demands unconditional faith, turns out to be fertile ground for the exploitation of the weakest, as will be well known by the most hapless people on both sides across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Unfortunately, The Duel stayed unknown in 2016, being a movie arriving few theaters and was almost wholly ignored even in streaming.