A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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").
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 ...
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?
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