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The venerable but moribund Western genre is unlikely to get much of a shot in the arm with Kieran Darcy-Smith’s 1880s-set drama pitting a Texas Ranger against a corrupt preacher. Infusing its familiar tropes with ponderous themes of retribution and good vs. evil, The Duel is far too sluggishly paced for its own good. Yes, things moved slower in the Old West, but movies set there don’t have to be as slow as molasses.
The pic’s strongest asset, as is often the case in his films, is Woody Harrelson, here playing Abraham, a charismatic preacher in a small Texas town near the border where numerous Mexicans have mysteriously been found dead. Investigating the case is David (Liam Hemsworth) — the religious themes are emphasized by the characters’ Biblical names — who goes undercover after the disappearance of a Mexican general’s niece. Accompanying him is his Mexican wife, Marisol (Alice Braga), who despite the danger has insisted on tagging along.
Release date: Jun 24, 2016
David also has a personal stake in the matter, as revealed in the prologue set 22 years earlier in which we see Abraham killing the lawman’s father in a knife fight.
Arriving in the town of Helena (the film’s original title was By Way of Helena), David is warmly greeted by Abraham, who has a strong hold over the townspeople. He quickly offers his visitor the job of town sheriff; David reluctantly agrees, but soon warms up to his duties, which include violently beating the men who viciously abused the town prostitute.
The cat-and-mouse between the central characters slowly escalates, with Abraham’s son Isaac (Emory Cohen) carrying out his father’s orders and Marisol falling ill and somehow, for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, falling under Abraham’s spell. The mystery behind the deaths is eventually revealed, although it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
The square-jawed, handsome Hemsworth seems designed to be a Western hero, although he isn’t given much to do here other than look stolid. Braga is compelling as always, but her character is so ill-defined that she never fully gets a grip on it. It’s left to Harrelson, piling on the smarmy charm in a white suit, to give the film whatever juice it has. The actor doesn’t disappoint, but even his strong efforts are not enough to elevate the tired material. There are plenty of fisticuffs and shootouts to be found in The Duel, but precious little of interest.
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Production companies: Atomic Entertainment, Mandeville Films, Mississippi Studios, 26 Films
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Emory Cohen, Felicity Price, Jose Zuniga, William Sadler
Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Screenwriter: Matt Cook
Producers: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Adam Rosenfelt, Maureen Meulen
Executive producers: Nathalie Marciano, Matt Cook, Aaron Gilbert, Pat Murray
Director of photography: Jules O’Loughlin
Production designer: Toby Corbett
Editors: Tracy Adams, Blake Harjes
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Composer: Craig Eastman
Casting: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy
Rated R, 110 minutes
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