If you’re an actor playing someone who’s sick and twisted and evil, almost nothing will get you into character quite like a startling new look. That tends to be the case whether the look comes courtesy of the makeup department (think Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” or Robert De Niro’s Al Capone in “The Untouchables”) or, simply, the electric razor. In “The Duel,” Woody Harrelson plays some sort of lethally charismatic Southern cult leader in the years after the Civil War, and his performance, which is all about being the kind of person no one can take their eyes off of, begins with his look: a shaved head, which seems like no big deal, but with matching shaved eyebrows (and occult tattooish squiggles in their place), all of which give Harrelson the appearance of a death-row psycho, or an overgrown baby, or maybe a strutting alien. He has actually sported this exact look once before — in the last act of “Natural Born Killers,” where Mickey Knox, preparing for a global tabloid-TV interview from prison, shaves himself down to his essence, all the better to communicate his message: that murder isn’t wrong, since it’s something that human beings do as naturally as wild wolves.
In “The Duel,” Harrelson’s Abraham, who is known as the Preacher, spouts a very similar sort of sin-is-good philosophy, which makes you wonder whether bits and pieces of it haven’t evolved over time out of Harrelson himself, with his pot-smoking outsider-artist Buddhist of Danger mystique. The movie opens with a ritualized knife fight in the mud, and before the duel even begins it’s obvious that the Preacher is going to win, because his gaze tells you that he has the will to kill. (He can’t wait to get started.) The Preacher is a former Confederate officer who fought his way through the Civil War one slash-of-death duel at a time, and he also gathered a thousand scalps (of Indians, Mexicans, escaped slaves — anyone who wasn’t white). Now, he presides over Helena, a town with the calicoed look and feel of an Amish village, and with lots of rules for everyone — except him. He’s got a creepy son (Emory Cohen) he lords it over, and a prostitute (Felicity Price) he treats like chattel. It’s his little fascist oasis, but the cracks are starting to show: The corpses of Mexican immigrants, dozens of them, have been discovered by U.S. authorities on the outskirts of town. So David Kingston (Liam Hemsworth), a Texas Ranger who as a boy lost his daddy in a knife fight (hmmm…), is sent in undercover to investigate.
Hemsworth has another small film you may have heard of that’s about to be released — “Independence Day: Resurgence” — but “The Duel” offers the first real chance we’ve had to see how he works as a grown-up leading man who has to hold down the center of a movie with no tricks beyond his actorly magnetism. And Hemsworth does it; wearing a bushy dark beard, he fills the screen with an easy, resolute youthful-macho confidence that may remind you of the Brad Pitt of 20 years ago. “The Duel” is basically a Western, with Kingston as the noble gunslinger who wanders, fearless and open-eyed, into a place where he knows he’s outgunned and outnumbered, but never outmanned. Harrelson’s Preacher is the proverbial villain in a black hat — though, in fact, he prefers to wander around in a cream-colored suit and matching bolero hat, which makes him look all the weirder, like an android in his Sunday best.
Kingston has brought along his Mexican wife, Marisol (Alice Braga), who gets bored sitting alone at their homestead, waiting for him. It’s her alluring presence that complicates matters. When the Preacher insists that the two of them stay for a while, even going so far as to appoint Kingston the town sheriff, it’s all a threat masquerading as an invitation. To the Preacher, with his hungry-wolf attitude, Marisol is fresh meat — not just another woman to devour but the object in a power game between himself and Kingston, the new kid in town. He’s got to demonstrate who the alpha dog is. When he pays Marisol a private visit, Harrelson is all smiling caresses and insinuating concern, a charade of courtliness. But he also suggests that she’s ill with “the fever,” and before long, she is. She has come under his spell.
The war between civility and taunting, preening masculine dominance suggests a variation on Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” but “The Duel,” despite some promising early scenes, doesn’t have anything like that kind of force. It’s more like “Straw Dogs” as a mediocre TV-movie, and the tension slowly dissipates. The director, the Australian-born Kieran Darcy-Smith, and screenwriter, Matt Cook, cherry-pick from different sources. When we finally learn what’s going on with all those dead Mexicans, it’s a creepy idea but far from an original one, fusing “The Most Dangerous Game” with Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films, not to mention a touch of anti-racist liberal didacticism perfectly timed for the Trump campaign. “The Duel” promises a battle of wits and wills, then turns into a violent grab-bag. But it does make you want to see Woody Harrelson get another movie worthy of his leering bald Nietzschean bravura.