The Duel, a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now riff in Western garb, relies heavily on the charms of Woody Harrelson as Abraham, the charismatic religious leader of a Texas town that may or may not be dumping the bodies of dead Mexicans into the Rio Grande. As you might imagine, that’s a safe bet on the part of the movie, as Harrelson can do “dangerous Southerner” to perfection. Less certain is Liam Hemsworth as our hero David (think “…and Goliath”). Very nearly a real-life Loki doomed forever to be in the shadow of his brother Thor, Liam is reminiscent here of a young Jason Patric, miscast for his pretty eyes and face, and waiting to grow older so he’ll be given stranger roles.
David is sent into the woods to find Abraham’s town of Helena, not just because it’s the suspected source of corpses in the river, but because there’s a real fear that Mexican General Calderon’s disappeared niece is there and is in danger. Her murder would invariably precipitating a second Mexican-American war. David’s a Texas Ranger, and as we learn in the film’s prologue, his father was killed by Abraham, albeit in a fair fight. He must go in undercover, and rather than seek revenge himself, call in the cavalry once he knows for sure that Abraham is guilty.
But before David even gets to Helena, there’s a problem. His Mexican wife Marisol (Alice Braga) insists on coming with him, to the point that she strongly implies he’ll never see her again if he leaves alone. Marisol is handy with a gun, and extremely headstrong, so her husband agrees to her demands, despite the fact that both the prologue scene and the circumstantial evidence suggest that the racism in Abraham’s town is likely to be severely hazardous to her health.
While the first townspeople David and Marisol meet are indeed ugly bigots, Abraham himself proves surprisingly hospitable, though his spotless white suit ought to raise some suspicions in an otherwise muddy wood. (The arrow tattoo in place of an eyebrow is equally weird…and never explained. Ten bucks says Harrelson himself came up with some elaborate backstory for it we will never know.) Not only does he offer room and board for the night, but the next day, he asks David to become the sheriff, a proposal only semi-reluctantly accepted. Gleefully dealing with the town’s woman-abusers by using his fists, David rather quickly fits in, but seems unaware that he may be giving in to darkness every bit as much as the locals, whose religion is one of snake-handling, with Abraham head of the church and a faith healer. Meanwhile, Marisol becomes mysteriously ill and begins to question her relationship with her husband.
Hemsworth’s relative blankness eventually becomes an asset, as blandly handsome transitions to the banality of evil, even in the service of good. Enhancing David’s fall from grace, the very Tom Hardy-like Emory Cohen as Abraham’s weasely kid Isaac is so eminently punchable you’ll delight as knuckles meet his face again and again.
By the time we’re done, the violence has entered horror-movie territory, as the stakes get upped in more brutal ways than may have been expected. The going may be slow to get there, but The Duel in fact features many duels, and they all bleed profusely over the big screen.
While this mostly makes for a satisfactory mano a mano battle in bullets and brutality, Marisol’s story remains problematic. Why does her mind change as it does, and how is it resolved that she was so swayed? The film prefers not to deal with that issue in the end, leaving the viewer to assume that, essentially, “women be trippin'” explains it all. That isn’t really good enough. A simple aside about Abraham being a master of hypnosis, or something like that, could have gone a long way there. Alternatively, if the argument is that her relationship with David was forged under horribly misogynist circumstances to begin with—as is sort of explained—take it further. If David is bad for her, how is Abraham not worse? Rather than fully flesh out her motives, director Kieran Darcy-Smith makes her feel like a prop in the male head-butting. But expanding her character’s perspective would have certainly enhanced a Western like The Duel.
Rating: 3.5 burritos for The Duel, all of them filled with pure meat and no veggies.
Images: Lionsgate Premiere
Luke Y. Thompson is Nerdist’s weekend editor, a member of the L.A. Film Critics’ Association, and he Tweets.