The latest from oddball extraordinaire Riley Stearns is a sci-fi curio about scrambling to find your will to live.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.)
Writer/director Riley Stearns introduces the viewer to the offbeat world of Dual through something of a Hunger Games or Twilight Zone knock-off, with a bloody duel between two men who look exactly the same as an audience watches. It’s a smart and captivating start, one flooded with Sterns’ usual dark sense of humor, and one that introduces the core premise succinctly: in a world where you and your double both want to live, how willing and able are you to survive a duel to the death?
That Dual then immediately follows this up by tying the viewer to a character who seems to lack any motivation to exist whatsoever is part of its charm.
From the start, everything about Karen Gillan’s Sara is void of human emotion. Her relationships with her mother and boyfriend involve deadpan conversations that only exist to deepen how tragic and aimless her existence seems and how generally unpleasant she is to be around. Even the discovery that she’s terminally ill (in a frankly hilarious exchange with the painfully honest physician of my dreams) doesn’t phase her much, opting to enlist in a program that creates and trains a clone to replace someone after their death.
This notion of replacing oneself while also keeping what makes them, well, them, isn’t uncharted territory in cinema, with works like Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow series and Alan Resnick’s Live Forever as You Are Now with Alan Resnick being some of the best recent explorations. Just as these works all lean into the absurdity of preservation and all the room for error that exists within the process, Stearns seeks to explore just how much the realizations that come with the end of our existence can fracture our very identity. The reveal that Sara is miraculously not dying and must compete with her clone to stay alive isn’t so much a twist as it is the film’s true inciting incident.
Gillan, as both her character and her clone, is at her best in Dual. Each version of Sara feels like a fully fleshed-out human being, rather than one being a caricature of the other. Growth only comes by putting work into a situation and not every bit of growth is positive, and the way Sara throws herself into training to be able to kill her clone is a clear showcase of negative reinforcement. Where Stearns’ The Art of Self-Defense focused on the way incels are essentially recruited for dangerous groups under the guise of salvation, there’s a bit of wholesome posturing present in the training sequences Sara shares with her trainer (played by Aaron Paul) in Dual.
As fascinating as it is to explore the way one can progressively become desensitized by engaging with violence, the humor does sort of dull the impact. These scenes are funny, sure, and it’s a pleasure to watch Paul and Gillan do some hip-hop dancing to Lil Jon’s “Get Low”, but the film doesn’t always strike an ideal balance between its playfulness and its straight-forward, almost serious, discussion about society. That said, Gillan’s performance, especially in the last act and the way her character(s) are always in conversation with each other – not strictly in actual dialogue but in the way they exist off-screen – is truly engrossing.
I’m hesitant to reveal any other details of Dual, particularly because its last act thrives on some surprise and ambiguity, but whatever missteps the film makes, it’s clear Stearns knows his lead actress can carry the film. The last shots of the film hold weight simply because of the work she’s done from start to finish and the way she sells many of the film’s most quietly devastating moments. It’s a performance that actually grapples with something that would horrify anyone; when you find yourself faced with the fact that you’re such a miserable human being that everyone, including those that claim to love you unconditionally, prefer a version of you with a wholly different personality, what do you do? Cry, fight, or both?