The Duel

Movie review by
Barbara Shulgas..., Common Sense Media
The Duel Movie Poster Image
Muddled, violent Western echoes Apocalypse Now.
  • R
  • 2016
  • 110 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Evil begets evil: Even those seeking to root out violence sometimes relish the violent acts required to bring justice. Well-intentioned, principled people can be corrupted in the pursuit of punishing evildoers. Prejudice is used to justify violence.

Positive Role Models & Representations

David is a devoted civil servant who does his duty and takes his obligations seriously. He's polite and perceptive and treats his wife with respect and deference. Abraham is evil and opportunistic to the core, an intelligent, patient con man with a lust for blood and pretty women. David comes to believe that he deserves to die for the harm he's done in pursuit of Abraham, seemingly equating his bad deeds with those of Abraham.

Violence

A young boy watches his father die in a violent duel. Several people are shot in the head. Blood is seen. A boulder traps a man's leg; he cuts his own calf off to get out from under it, and the severed bone is shown briefly. An unarmed woman runs for her life from human hunters; she's shot several times, finally fatally, seen from a distance. The killer then scalps her, also seen from a distance, and her body is dumped in a river. The killing is part of a regular, racially motivated program of murders. A lawman later shoots the woman's killer dead in a bar and forces another man who was in involved to shoot two men sitting in the bar. A man hits and strangles a prostitute in his bed, then kicks her to the floor. A woman who's been beaten about the face shows her wounds to a lawman. A woman's bloodied body is found hanging in a tree. A deer is shot (death not shown) for no apparent reason.

Sex

Prostitutes work at a saloon. The madman preacher turns a wife against her husband because he lusts after her. No sex is seen. A married couple kisses in bed. No nudity.

Language

"F--k," "s--t," "bitch," "piss," "N" word.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink alcohol at a saloon. An adult smokes what seems to be a tobacco pipe.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that although The Duel is set in 19th-century Texas, it's really a kind of supernatural horror story disguised as a Western. The story echoes both Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of it, Apocalypse Now. The emphasis is on eerie claims of clairvoyance, foretelling of grim future events, and, most disturbing, bloody violence and disregard for the value of human life, with racism at its core. Violence is frequent and intense: A man severs his own leg to escape a trap, there's lots of shooting (and a bloody body count to match), and people are gunned down by "death tourists" who pay for the thrill of killing someone. Also, two men duel, tied together at the hands and left to stab each other repeatedly until one dies in a pool of blood. Although no sex acts or nudity are seen, there are many suggestions of lust and references to prostitution. Characters drink (whiskey, beer), smoke, and swear ("f--k," "s--t," "bitch," "piss").

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What's the story?

In the 19th century -- an era of continuing disputes regarding land at what is now the Mexico-Texas border -- some white Americans use violent means to keep Mexicans from crossing into U.S. territory; THE DUEL focuses on Abraham (Woody Harrelson), a man with a long history of violence and a cult-like following for his "preaching." Authorities suspect he's behind the killing of innocent, unarmed Mexicans in a tiny Texas hamlet. The governor sends David (Liam Hemsworth), an earnest young Texas Ranger, to investigate undercover. In a monumental error in judgment, David brings his Mexican wife along for the ride, and a series of weird, violent events ensues.

Is it any good?

So many wrong turns by The Duel's writer and director make the errors in judgment committed by the movie's characters seem forgivable in comparison. The script mindlessly coughs out modern phrases not used in the 1800s -- for example, someone "did a number" on someone else. But far worse logical mistakes make this movie a muddle. Why would David ever take his Mexican wife along on an undercover mission to root out a vicious madman known for heinous acts of barbarism against Mexicans? How does the madman know who the lawman is the moment the undercover Texas Ranger arrives? How does the madman predict that the wife will come down with a fever? How does the devilish mad "preacher" turn the loving wife into an acolyte in a matter of days? Magic? The power of god?

And the references to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Apocalypse Now -- from the hellish killings down to the fetishistic close-ups of Harrelson's sweaty, shaven head (reminiscent of Marlon Brando's) -- are less reverence than a sign of The Duel's artistic poverty. Most puzzling of all: How can a guy so badly wounded that he's closed his eyes to die be upright in a saddle only minutes later riding away to safety? Note that the designated "bad guy" wears white, customarily symbolic of purity and good, while the "good guy" wears black. Very message-y. The movie's greatest flaw is that, despite all the violence, it isn't nearly as disturbing or instructive as it seems to want to be.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about The Duel's violence. How does it compare to what you might see in an action movie? Which has more impact? Why? What's the impact of media violence on kids?

  • Does the movie condone the violence that the Texas Ranger must use in order to combat Abraham's evil? Do the ends ever justify the means?

  • Abraham is cruel, especially to those he's prejudiced against -- i.e. the Mexicans. What message does his attitude send? What can we take away from seeing how his character behaves?

Movie details

For kids who love action

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