Movie review of “The Duel”: Liam Hemsworth impresses as an undercover Texas Ranger in this plot-heavy Gothic Western, co-starring Woody Harrelson as a delicious if cartoonish cult preacher. Rating: 2 stars out of 4.
“The Duel” has some appeal as a potboiler Gothic Western (is there such a thing?). But despite promising elements of mixed-genre thrills, the film is finally the underwhelming sum of too many plot devices.
It begins as a probable revenge story with a scene in which a boy witnesses his father killed by Abraham (Woody Harrelson). Cut to two decades later, post-Civil War, and the boy is now a Texas Ranger named David (Liam Hemsworth) on undercover assignment to investigate mysterious murders of Mexicans in a rarely visited border town called Helena.
David plunges ahead knowing full well Abraham, now a charismatic kook halfway between Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and a snake-handling religious cultist, runs Helena. But David is a moral man defined by his job, and when destiny inevitably forces a reckoning with the past, he is a reluctant protagonist.
Movie Review ★★
‘The Duel,’ with Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Felicity Price. Directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith, from a screenplay by Matt Cook. 100 minutes. Rated R for violence and language. Sundance Cinemas (21+).
That surely should have been enough for screenwriter Matt Cook’s feverish story — that and the always-irresistible trope about an entire town keeping its scary leader’s secrets. Even a quirky subplot in which Abraham exploits a racial fault line in David’s marriage to his haunted, Mexican wife (Alice Braga) is good stuff.
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But Harrelson’s trademark, cobra-eyed predator performance isn’t enough to make Abraham a three-dimensional villain. If hallucinatory scenes of the character casting out devils and grasping snakes among babbling worshippers are deliciously cheesy, they’re also cartoonish.
Cook and director Kieran Darcy-Smith (the Australian actor) ultimately push their luck too far with a too-familiar story thread borrowed from a 1920s short story we all read in high school.
Hemsworth and Braga both impress, but it’s a supporting role by Felicity Price, as a saloon prostitute, who dazzles beyond clichés.