Emory Cohen was robbed of the Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of Tony, Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive, working class boyfriend, in Brooklyn in 2015, and I’ve been chasing his career ever since, waiting for him to take a part that is as compelling and magnetic as that one. He hasn’t, but he’s still fascinating to watch no matter how small the role, which is how I end up watching movies like The Duel, a film that bears no resemblance to the polished Brooklyn.
A dirty, unapologetic Western, this movie stars Liam Hemsworth as David Kingston, a Texas Ranger sent to investigate the murders of dozens of Mexicans along the border. He brings his wife, Marisol (Alice Braga), at her insistence to the dusty town of Mount Hermon, which is under the grip of mayor and healer Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson). Cohen plays his son, Isaac, a young man with any number of demons to be exorcised.
It’s clear before David and Marisol even stumble into town that something is wrong with the place. They enter under the pretense of visiting nearby family, but the calculus changes when Abraham offers David the job of sheriff, one he takes so that he can explore the area with less suspicion. Marisol is at first wary of the eyebrowless preacher dressed in white, but when he corners her in her home and begins speaking of her insecurities, she is bewitched.
The film grabs ahold of several interesting threads. The mystery of the dead bodies clogging up the river doesn’t just reveal the brutality of mankind but also touches on issues of sovereignty, nationalism, and race. Faith takes on mystical qualities as Marisol becomes increasingly drawn to Abraham’s healing powers, and relationships between father and son and husband and wife expose a rot at their core. There’s also the first instance of a duel when Abraham kills David’s father, perhaps allowing revenge to overtake the latter’s sense of duty.
None of these are followed through or proceed in a way that makes a lot of sense, however. Is Marisol really sick or is it all in her head? Why does she suddenly turn from her husband? Also, what is Isaac’s deal? He clearly wants to win his father’s approval, but what is driving them apart to begin with? Mount Hermon is a town that’s good at hiding things, and there’s just too much hidden in this plot to justify any kind of investment in the story or characters.
Instead, the movie banks on the appeal of Abraham. In the hands of Harrelson, that means a wacky personality that dominates the picture despite strong performances from the other actors. Hemsworth the Younger is surprisingly fierce, and his David is more than a righteous stoic. You get the feeling that he’ll always make the just decision even if it’s not the moral one. Braga and Cohen get parts that are not as well written, but they still convey their characters’ bleak and tortured souls. Cohen especially is a live wire. Harrelson, however, wrestles control from every scene he’s in, putting not just the people of Mount Hermon under his spell but the audience as well. There’s a point when Abraham’s zany behavior becomes oppressive though, serving the character alone and not the story.
Prod: David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman, Adam Rosenfelt, Maureen Meulen
Dir: Kieran Darcy-Smith
Writer: Matt Cook
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Alice Braga, Emory Cohen, Felicity Price
Time: 109 min
Lang: English, some Spanish
Country: United States