Riley Stearns was one of my favorite discoveries at SXSW 2019. Nearly every writing and directing decision in The Art of Self-Defense was on my wavelength. Really, you could not ask for a funnier deadpan comedy than that. But so much of that film’s laughs were in service of exploring cultural standards of what it means to be masculine and at what point does it become toxic… all in a story that takes place in the present day. Imagine what Stearns can do with the science fiction genre, I thought, and here we are.
Dual sees Stearns flexing his satirical sensibilities to another level. His jokes have a tinge of horror or cringe to them now because he goes straight for the jugular. The result is a delightful blend of Yorgos Lanthimo’s The Lobster with Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow, because if your story is dealing with clones, you have to talk about just how easily disposable human beings are and how so much of our existence is pointless because it’s so easily replaceable or replicable.
Part of the film’s absurdity comes from its lack of interest in world-building. It’s not that the “rules” of this universe do not make sense. It’s that scenes of explanations and expositions fly at you with a “take it or leave it” attitude. It’s the funniest, most blunt method a script could take in getting you to suspend disbelief. Sarah (Karen Gillan) learns that she’s dying from a terminal illness. What kind? We don’t know. But we definitely know she’s dying. So Sarah volunteers for a cloning procedure and begins to train her clone to be like her. But then… actually Sarah has fully recovered. She’s not dying anymore. How? We don’t know. Well… shit… there can’t be two Sarahs at once now. Guess the law says they have to Hunger Games their way out, to see who gets to be the real Sarah (that’s when it clicks that there’s a double meaning to the movie title). Mind you, this is all fed to us the way you expect Riley Stearns would, and every second of it is glorious.
Through this strange, inconvenient, and… just plain shitty situation, we find ourselves invested in Sarah, to see if she can pull herself out of the hole. For too long, she has lived and existed on autopilot. She has an estranged relationship with her mother (Maija Paunio), who calls and leaves voicemail messages every day, and her romantic relationship with her boyfriend (Beulah Koale) is sputtering its way to a halt. The concept of Sarah’s double is to continue these relationships long after Sarah herself is gone. It’s even billed that way in the film, that before you die, you should consider what that would do to your loved ones. But once the double isn’t needed anymore, the “damage” has already been done – Sarah’s loved ones now prefer the double over her.
Even though she doesn’t have much of a good life to return to, this climactic duel to the death is a chance for Sarah to rediscover her agency. It’s an interesting way to find empathy in the characters, while maintaining that signature cold, detached, and dry humor that defines Stearns’ writing. Gillan is hysterical in this unique take on the doppelgänger subgenre. With Sarah talking like Siri and her double talking like Alexa, Gillan sparks a hilarious chemistry with herself on screen, and the stakes between them build with genuine suspense.
Accompanying her in the second half of the film is Aaron Paul as Trent, Sarah’s personal trainer who helps her prepare for the duel. With hints of Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei from The Art of Self-Defense, Paul’s Trent is also just as stiff and ridiculous. He shares fantastic chemistry with Gillan, as the two of them demonstrate a quirky sense of mutual respect. It’s the kind of back-and-forth acting that you just know must’ve been fun to shoot on set, and you just know there were people on set having to hold back their laughs.
But with that deadpan comedy comes the painful drama underneath. Gillan finds a delicate balance between letting Sarah’s coldness come off as funny and letting it come off as emotional numbness. As Dual approaches its last thirty minutes, we realize that Stearns has more than just jokes on his mind. There’s something repetitive and endless about us trudging through our day-to-day lives. The fact that one has to kill in order to live is both ironic and, as this film suggests, not worth it.
Though the ending itself can be jarring and unsatisfying from a plot perspective, I can’t help but think back to the last few minutes constantly. Stearns directs his actors with careful restraint. He knows when to have just enough emotional vulnerability to slip through the cracks in our characters, and Gillan is more than up to the task of revealing them in the right amount of detail.
You can argue that Dual could have and should have explored its concepts further, but I respect Stearns for knowing what the questions are and not pretending like he knows the answers to them. The result is a bizarre, uncomfortable, and hysterical exercise in tone, using a self-contained premise. It lacks the precision and sharpness in The Art of Self-Defense, but as his first attempt at taking his sensibilities to the world of science fiction, Dual is exactly what I hoped I would get.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute