The Duel (2016)

  • Time: 110 min
  • Genre: Drama | Western
  • Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
  • Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Woody Harrelson


A Texas Ranger investigates a series of unexplained deaths in a town called Helena.


  • Woody Harrelson is Abraham in the Western drama, The Duel. Bald of head, shorn of eyebrow, dressed in white, he is first shown engaged in a ritualised knife fight, dispensing with his opponent with a flurry of stab wounds until the man slumps on the muddy ground. A little boy comes forward to touch the dead man’s boot, a farewell gesture to his fallen father.

    Twenty-two years pass and the boy, named David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) has grown up to be a Texas Ranger. He has been assigned to investigate the rash of Mexican corpses that have been turning up on the outskirts of town. One of the bodies happens to belong to the nephew of a Mexican general who is threatening to bring a battalion over the border in order to find his nephew’s killer as well as search for his missing niece. It’s suspected that Abraham may be behind the murders, given his history of gathering scalps of Indians, Mexicans and anyone of colour.

    David agrees to the mission, though his intentions are questioned by his Mexican wife, Marisol (Alice Braga). Is he out to exact revenge on his father’s killer? David maintains he’s setting out to Helena, the town over which Abraham presides, to do his job, nothing more. Marisol insists on going along with him, even threatening to leave him if he doesn’t agree. He acquiesces and the two ride into Helena like lambs to slaughter. They’re welcomed by Abraham, who appears to accept David’s alias and cover story and professes to like him so much that he makes David the new sheriff. It’s a manipulation, of course, all the better to get closer to Marisol.

    Paying her a visit while David’s in town, Abraham notes that she must be ill with fever and shares that they cannot separate themselves from sin – anger is instructive, jealousy understandable, lust perfectly natural. It’s as if he’s casting a spell and she proves to be instantly pliable to his powers. Her susceptibility might be wholly surprising had she not revealed during their conversation that her father betrothed her to David as a reward for taking care of him during his illness. Soon enough, she seems struck by a true fever and David must find a way to save her and himself even though he seems outgunned, outmanned, and outmaneuvered.

    The Duel is not a particularly good film, though it is frequently a serviceable one. The triangle intrigues and the inevitable showdown between Abraham and David is a spare and scrappy affair though unnecessarily expanded to include a leg being sawn off and an out-of-left-field appearance by a character introduced only minutes earlier. Director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook overcomplicate matters with characters like Abraham’s weirdly unpleasant son Isaac (Emory Cohen) and hooker with a heart of gold Naomi (Felicity Price). The latter pours out her back story within minutes of introducing herself to David and ends up swinging from a tree after offering to help him with his investigation if he promises to help her escape from Abraham’s clutches. A lot of the story and many characters’ motivations make little to no sense, and the mystery behind the dead bodies in the river is straight out of The Most Dangerous Game playbook.

    Though Marisol is arguably the most interesting character here, she’s quite underdeveloped and there is little that the often compelling Braga can do to mask this. Hemsworth is solid as the noble gunslinger, but Harrelson dominates as the swaggering and slithering Abraham.

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  • I’m not sure what director Kieran Darcy-Smith was going for when he made 2016’s The Duel (my latest review). Muddled yet scenic, draggy yet periodically violent, “Duel” is one unclear Western.

    At a running time of 110 minutes, “Duel” sure does feel like three long hours. It takes place oh about 100-plus years ago with vague, plot elements from Gang of New York and bearings straight from 1978’s Days of Heaven. Star Woody Harrelson plays a creepy preacher and talks with a Southern drawl for the millionth time. Co-star Liam Hemsworth plays a pretty Texas Ranger and has a bland disposition in the acting department. Finally, Alice Braga plays Hemsworth’s character’s wife, a non-outlaw who gets mysteriously sick and feels downtrodden. Oh yeah, there’s another Days of Heaven reference I forgot to mention. Braga looks a little like Brooke Adams. Adams was Terrence Malick’s cutesy muse from back in the day.

    Anyway, the story is as follows: David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth) has been tapped to investigate some murders and disappearances in a small, Old West frontier town. He also has been sent to keep an eye on the town’s chief officer, Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson). Brant looking kinda similar to Harrelson’s own Mickey Knox, killed Kingston’s father over twenty years ago. Is Kingston bent on revenge towards Brant? Is Kingston just doing his job as a responsible Ranger? Is Brant gonna have another sermon with snakes being passed around in his congregation? Is this movie ever gonna lead somewhere? Oops, I’m going off on a tangent. Sorry.

    In conclusion, The Duel is slow-burning and almost devoid of conflict. And whenever said conflict does exist, well it is artificially forced upon us, the audience. There’s the occasional stabbing, a final gunfight amidst rock formations, a couple of killings by way of game-like shooting, and a dark, saloon standoff between good and evil. If you don’t fall asleep during “Duel”, you’ll occasionally catch these moments (only briefly though). If you do fall asleep during The Duel, well you aren’t breaking any laws. Do yourself a favor, rent something from Clint Eastwood or George Stevens instead. Rating: 1 and a half stars.

    Rating: 1.5 out of 4 stars

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