Sometimes a movie just tries to do too much, and shoots itself in the foot. Such is the case with “The Duel,” directed by Kieran Darcy-Smith from Matt Cook’s script, which appeared on the 2009 Black List. The story is an intriguing twist on the western genre, but in piling on other subgenres and story elements, including a dangerous and charismatic cult, it dilutes the essential nature of what could have been a potent revenge tale.
Liam Hemsworth stars as David, a Texas Ranger dispatched to the secluded town of Helena to investigate a possible connection between flamboyant religious leader Abraham (Woody Harrelson) and a spate of scalped Mexican bodies that have floated downriver. David doesn’t initially reveal his father was killed by Abraham in a barbaric and brutal ritual known as a Helena Duel — a knife fight to the death, that they inevitably must revisit.
There’s something about “The Duel” — perhaps Hemsworth’s handsome bro-dude demeanor and delivery — that feels like a western theme park rather than an authentic outlaw tale. Maybe Harrelson’s white suit is just too spotless. Though the film attempts to compensate with over-the-top violence (the Texas Ranger “code of law” introduced at the beginning apparently involves a lot of senseless murder) and mysterious spiritual possession, the only truly compelling performance is a sneering, mutton-chopped Emory Cohen as Abraham’s shifty son.
With gorgeous, sun-dappled cinematography by Jules O’Loughlin, “The Duel” is pretty to look at, but the story itself is overly long and overly wrought, a flabby two-hour tale that feels about three.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood